Missouri House members were asked this week to consider whether Missouri should continue to have a death penalty.
Missouri reinstated the death penalty in 1977 and currently uses lethal injection to carry out executions. It most recently executed Mark Christeson on January 31 for the murders in 1998 of Susan Brouk and her children, ages 9 and 12.
Clay County Republican T.J. Berry offered an amendment that would have repealed Missouri’s capital punishment statute. It would make life without the possibility of parole Missouri’s maximum sentence.
Berry said he favored the death penalty when he first took office in 2011, but said after looking at it objectively he no longer supports it.
“I don’t think that there’s any way that we can defend it any longer,” Berry told his fellow lawmakers.
Berry cited three reasons he wants to end the death penalty in Missouri: people who are sentenced by courts are sometimes exonerated; it costs the state less to incarcerate a person for life than to sentence that person to death and respond to appeals through the life of the case; and it takes years for a death sentence to be carried out, extending the time victims’ families must deal with offenders’ cases.
St. Charles Republican Kathie Conway disagreed with Berry’s reasoning and his proposal.
Regarding exonerations, she believes DNA evidence and repeated reviews by multiple courts on appeals leave little doubt as to the veracity of modern death penalty cases.
“We very rarely make that mistake again,” said Conway of exonerations.
House Democratic leader Gail McCann Beatty supports repeal. She agreed with another point Berry made; that some victims’ families don’t want the death penalty for those who harmed their loved ones. She told the chamber she believed this even though her brother and two nephews have been murdered.
“At no time have I ever thought that I wanted the death penalty for the people who did it,” said McCann Beatty through tears. “My brother was murdered by a friend of his that he grew up with. I don’t see the point in making that family suffer. They shared the pain that I did. There is no point. It doesn’t bring them back.”
Republican Paul Fitzwater (Potosi) told Berry he still supports the death penalty even though one of his best friends was sentenced to death and executed for murdering a couple in 1993.
“I attended his funeral the following Friday after that and it was tough on me, but it didn’t deter how I feel about the death penalty,” said Fitzwater. “I can just imagine if someone would kill one of my children or my parents or someone. I hear people get up there and say, ‘Well, you know, I can forgive him.’ I’m not sure I could ever do that.”
Conway also told Berry she doesn’t favor replacing the death penalty with a life without parole sentence, because efforts have been made in the legislature to allow some offenders with such a sentence to be paroled when old age or terminal illness is a factor.
“That’s a compact that we make with the jury. Here’s the law. This person will not be paroled, period, end of sentence, and we were going to change that. So I don’t trust going forward that that might not be the case again,” said Conway.
Berry withdrew the amendment, saying he hadn’t expected it to pass but he wanted legislators to have a conversation about the issue and give it some thought.
Berry, who is in the first year of his final term, hopes that future legislatures’ attitudes will shift more toward ending the death penalty in Missouri.