American Bar Association calls for moritorium on death penalty

Monday, October 29, 2007 | 10:44 p.m. CDT; updated 1:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Bar Association won’t take a stance on having a moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri, but a national ban is recommended by the American Bar Association.

Despite the ABA’s recommendation for a national moratorium, Senate President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, a practicing attorney as well as a candidate for the Republican nomination for attorney general, continues to support the death penalty in Missouri.

Monday, the ABA, composed of more than 413,000 members, asked for a national moratorium on the death penalty after a three-year study uncovered many flaws within the system.

The study was done in eight states and found reoccurring problems, including racial disparities, lack of preservation of evidence and irregular clemency review processes. Other concerns were short time periods to petition the courts for review and the fact that most states have had mistakes and fraud in crime laboratories.

Another concern is the way that jury instructions are explained. In the study, the ABA found that jury instructions are poorly conveyed.

Missouri Bar Association President Charlie Harris said, “Historically, we have not taken a stance on this issue. The two organizations are completely autonomous.”

Gibbons said he does not believe that Missouri has any serious problems or exonerations, which other states have seen.

The ABA also expressed concerns about clients with mental disabilities being sentenced to death.

Ernest Lee Johnson, an inmate on death row for murder, claims to be mentally disabled, and he has appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Nationally, there have been several high profile death row cases which have been overturned and Missouri has overturned or changed several convictions in recent years.

In April 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned a conviction for Joseph Amrine from Kansas City for a murder that occurred 17 years prior to his conviction. There were problems with the testimony of three inmates who identified him. Last year, Leamon White was released after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his sentence.

In 1999, Darrell Mease was taken off of death row after Pope John Paul II asked for his sentence to be changed from capital punishment to life in prison.

Missouri Corrections Department spokesperson Brian Hauswirth said there are 45 active death row inmates in Missouri. There are 172 people that have been sentenced to death since 1979.

Hauswirth also said that it is usually well over 10 years before an execution is carried out. One inmate, Elroy Preston, has been on death row since 1982.

Historically, black legislators have taken a stance on the racial disparities in convictions.

“It’s been going on for many years, and it needs to be changed,” Rep. Juanita Walton, D-Florissant, a member of the Missouri Black Caucus, said.

Walton said that racial disparities in convictions are a big problem in Missouri. She said she supports the ABA, and said that the Missouri Black Caucus takes the same stance on the issue.

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