Death penalty discussed in light of Missouri's planned execution

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 | 10:46 p.m. CST; updated 11:31 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 13, 2013

COLUMBIA — Melinda Pendergraph's voice filled the model courtroom in Hulston Hall at MU's Law School on Wednesday night.

In a calm manner, she explained the toll working with her former clients has taken on her. Three of them have been sentenced to death row.

"Our society shouldn't use the death penalty because it's a broken system," Pendergraph said.

The room was quiet as audience members listened.

"As I think about my clients, if they're jerks, it's usually because they never had a chance in our society before," Pendergraph said.

Pendergraph was among three panelists who spoke at "When the State Kills" on Wednesday, held in advance of the planned Nov. 20 execution of Joseph Franklin.

The panelists spent the evening discussing the morality and public policy issues surrounding the death penalty. Along with Pendergraph, who was a public defender for more than 25 years, Columbia Daily Tribune columnist Hank Waters and MU sociology professor John Galliher were on the panel. All three expressed opinions that opposed the death penalty.

The state of Missouri plans to use lethal injection to execute Joseph Franklin, who is on death row for the sniper shooting of a man outside of a St. Louis synagogue in 1977. It would be the first execution in two years for Missouri, with another one for Allen Nicklasson set for December.

The morality of the death penalty came up multiple times Wednesday night.

Waters said he has been writing editorials about the death penalty for the past 20 years and that he thought the only rationale for the death penalty is societal revenge.

"If (society) wants revenge, we do a really poor job at getting it," he said.

Galliher said the death penalty takes a toll on the defendants.

"People are made crazy by being on death row," he said.

Questions from the audience

After the panelists finished their statements, they took questions from the audience. One of those questions was whether public defenders have more or less of an eagerness toward the cases they take on compared to hired attorneys.

Pendergraph said that most people who are on death row are poor. When a public defender represents a defendant who is charged with first-degree murder, she said the assumption is always the death penalty. She said that when the defendant hires a lawyer, they can delve deeper into the case and potentially find more problems with it. These people typically get better plea offers than defendants represented by a public defender.

For example, she said Ryan Ferguson had a better opportunity from the beginning, especially in the the appeals court where he was represented by prestigious attorney Kathleen Zellner. Ferguson was freed Tuesday after the state decided it wouldn't take action against Ferguson, whose conviction in the 2001 slaying of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was vacated last week. Ferguson had been serving a 40-year sentence.

Pendergraph was asked if she thought mistakes were often made in the prosecution in the court system.

"Most definitely," Pendergraph said. "But when you have a strong defense, the justice system is good at finding those mistakes."

The panelists also were asked what the qualifications to be on the jury in a death penalty case are. Pendergraph said that almost always, people who oppose the death penalty are excused from duty because they would never be able to convict the defendant.

The jury has to have a balanced and open mind, she said.

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.

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