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Saint Louis University to help study Missouri death penalty

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 | 4:37 p.m. CDT; updated 5:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ST. LOUIS — A new research program at Saint Louis University's law school will analyze Missouri's administration of the death penalty during the last 25 years, pairing the school with a prominent researcher whose capital punishment reviews in other states found significant procedural flaws.

Law students with the Missouri Capital-Sentencing Research Program will review the 72 executions carried out by the state since 1989 as well as the death sentences handed down to 42 additional inmates. Those include Jeffrey Ferguson, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday for raping and killing a 17-year-old girl a quarter-century ago in suburban St. Louis.

The state Supreme Court has kept detailed trial court reports from each judge presiding over capital cases since Missouri reinstated the death penalty in 1977. The research effort also will look at several hundred additional cases in which defendants were eligible to receive the death penalty but instead were sentenced to life without parole, said Saint Louis University School of Law Dean Michael Wolff, the court's former chief justice.

While the SLU students will gain real-world experience working in their school's legal clinic, the overall data will be analyzed by Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland criminologist who has conducted similar death penalty reviews in Maryland, South Carolina and Texas.

In Maryland, Paternoster found a decade ago that blacks who killed whites were significantly more likely to face the death penalty than white killers or blacks who killed members of their own race — research that helped convince lawmakers in that state last year to abolish the death penalty. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, a Paternoster study commissioned by a death row inmate's lawyers found prosecutors were far more likely to pursue the death penalty against black defendants during the 1990s than for white defendants.

Wolff, who spent 13 years on the Missouri Supreme Court, said the research project will be guided by scientific rigor, not an anti-death penalty bias. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment requires judges, juries and prosecutors to abide by the legal principle of "proportionality" — in essence, that the punishment fits the crime.

"You want to assure proportionality," he said. "Good data analysis will help make that point."

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, Missouri trails only Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma and Florida in the total number of executions.


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