New death penalty bill opens options for Missouri executions

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | 9:25 p.m. CST; updated 11:16 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 20, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY — Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, introduced legislation Wednesday that would allow the Department of Corrections to determine how to execute death row inmates.

Senate Bill 898 would remove language from the law that determines Missouri's only means of execution — lethal injection and lethal gas.

The bill would give more force to Missouri's execution protocols. Schaefer said death-penalty opponents are using the current shortage of pentobarbital, the drug Missouri uses in lethal injections, to advocate that the state stop executions.

Schaefer's bill was introduced on the same day the head of the Corrections Department declined to tell the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Schaefer chairs, whether the state had enough of its execution drug to carry out next week's lethal injection.

In recent executions, Missouri used pentobarbital provided by a compounding pharmacy.

The state has refused to say where it obtains its execution drug, arguing that the source is part of the execution team and therefore shielded from public disclosure.  The Apothecary Shoppe, a compounding pharmacy in Tulsa, Okla., which is suspected of being the drug's supplier, won't confirm that it supplies a compounded version of pentobarbital to Missouri for use in lethal injections.

On Monday, The Apothecary Shoppe, in response to a lawsuit, agreed this week to not sell the drug for use in Michael Taylor's execution on Feb. 26.

"If we're going to have a public discussion about whether or not Missouri continues with the death penalty, then let's have a transparent and public discussion about it, not a back-door effort to stop executions through public pressure," Schaefer said.

"If that's their strategy, then it's my intention to ensure that that's not the effect," he said.

Rita Linhardt of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said she welcomed discussion, but that it's difficult to be heard in the legislature.

In 2013, House Bill 644, which would have repealed the death penalty, was referred to the Judiciary Committee in mid-May, just two weeks before the legislative session ended. Senate Bill 247, which also would have repealed the death penalty, was referred to the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in February, but its advancement stopped there.

Lastly, Senate Bill 61, which called for a study of the costs associated with the death penalty, was finalized but was not brought up for a vote.

"So far, that discussion seems to be stymied with people in the legislature," Linhardt said, acknowledging that her organization's strategy includes putting pressure on third parties.

The death penalty is arbitrary and capricious, Linhardt said, and a debate over execution methods is "an act of desperation to protect a failing system." Moreover, she was concerned that the legislature would give away its ability to oversee what she considered important public policy with SB 898.

The legislation would "bypass the authority that should rest with the legislature," she said. Linhardt wondered if the decision to give the Department of Corrections more control would have popular support.

A Pew Research Center poll released Feb. 12 showed that national support for the death penalty decreased from 78 percent in 1996 to 55 percent in 2014. State-by-state numbers were not included in the report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Gary Castor.

Click the links for related coverage of the state's execution protocols and drug shortage.

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