MU law professor highlights ‘serious problems’ in Missouri dealth penalty process

COLUMBIA ­— Two bipartisan state bills focusing on death penalty reform — Senate Bill 393 and House Bill 561 — have more to do with fixing “serious problems” affecting the entire Missouri criminal justice system and less to do with the morality of executions, MU law professor Paul Litton said Thursday.

Litton was co-chair of an eight-member team of prominent Missouri jurists tasked by the American Bar Association with studying potential flaws in the fairness and accuracy of the state’s capital justice system. The group’s two-year, 400-plus-page report was released in 2012.

Litton highlighted some of the report’s recommendations at a meeting hosted by opponents of the death penalty at the Missouri United Methodist Church. The event, “Moratorium Now: Promoting Reforms for Greater Fairness and Accuracy in Missouri’s Death Penalty” drew about 40 people.

Recommendations included changes to the state’s investigative procedures, where the most serious problems were found, he said.

Other recommendations aimed at reducing wrongful convictions would require police departments to: record an entire interrogation with a suspect from beginning to end; inform eyewitnesses reviewing a police lineup that a suspect may not be in the lineup; and ensure the police officer leading the lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is in order not to influence the results.

“These are relevant to the whole criminal justice system, not just death penalty cases,” Litton said.

At Thursday’s event, state Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, said he has long supported reform in the state’s capital punishment practices.

“Every single person I’ve ever met believes government makes mistakes,” Webber said, adding that the death penalty is something where “you can’t make a mistake.”

Both SB 393 and HB 561 would create a task force to analyze the state’s capital punishment system, while placing a moratorium on the death penalty until January 2018. The bipartisan Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, and Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph; HB 561 was sponsored by Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, and cosponsored by 11 members including three Republicans.

Missouri has executed 81 people since 1976, including 10 last year, which tied it with Texas for the state with most executions.

Supervising editor is Caroline Bauman.


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