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Missouri has performed the fifth most executions nationwide since 1976 and currently has 20 people on death row. Opponents are hoping to slowly “abolish” the use of the death penalty by limiting the ways it can be handed down. (File photo)

While many states have effectively halted executions, Missouri put two people to death in 2022 and is scheduled to execute two more people in 2023. With a high-profile execution just completed, opponents of the death penalty want to reduce or halt the practice.

Missouri executed Kevin Johnson, 37, on Nov. 29. At age 19, Johnson killed a Kirkwood police officer. His legal team had argued that the prosecutor who requested a death sentence was routinely biased against Black defendants. 

The Supreme Court allowed the execution to proceed, but Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion, saying Johnson’s due process rights had been violated. 

Johnson’s case is an example of the challenges within the system that death-penalty opponents hope to address in 2023. Elyse Max, co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said she doesn’t think the Missouri legislature is ready to completely abolish the death penalty, but the group is hoping to take small steps to limit its use. 

“We, in Missouri, are what is considered an abolition by attrition state,” Max told The Beacon. “What we’re trying to do is really narrow down the use and the scope of the death penalty. We do not think our legislature is ready for repeal.” 

One practice the group wants to see ended is the leeway for a judge to impose capital punishment if a jury cannot decide to sentence someone to death. Only a few states grant that unilateral power to judges.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a criminal justice nonprofit, no Missouri jury has imposed a death sentence since 2013. But judges have done so twice, in October 2017 in St. Charles County and in January 2018 in Greene County.

How Missouri stacks up against other states

Eighteen executions were carried out nationwide in 2022, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Two of those took place in Missouri. Texas and Oklahoma each executed five people, while Arizona carried out three executions and Alabama two. The federal government still practices executions, but did not carry any out in 2022. 

According to the DPIC, executions peaked in 1999, with 98, and the numbers have mostly been falling since. The year with the fewest executions was 2021, with 11.

Although many states still allow it in their statutes, according to the group’s year-end report, 37 states have either abolished capital punishment or have stopped using the practice. 

Recent polling from Gallup shows that 55% of Americans support the death penalty. But most Americans consider life in prison without parole a better option for people convicted of murder. In 2019, 60% of those polled chose that option while 36% favored death sentences.

Missouri has executed 93 people since 1976 — the fifth highest total among the states,    according to the DPIC fact sheet. Missouri has 20 people currently on death row. Amber McLaughlin, a transgender woman who was convicted of murdering her ex-girlfriend in 2003, is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Jan. 3. Her case is one in which a judge issued the sentence in place of a decision from the jury. The sentence was later vacated by a federal court, but that decision was reversed by a federal appeals court. 

McLaughlin’s attorneys submitted a clemency application to Gov. Mike Parson to ask for a commutation of her sentence, arguing that McLaughlin suffered from mental health issues. 

Leonard Taylor is set to be executed a month after McLaughlin, on Feb. 7. 

Potential paths in the legislature 

There hasn’t been much legislative energy recently around addressing the death penalty in Jefferson City. In 2022, Democratic Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, introduced a bill to abolish the death penalty and instead sentence Missourians who may be eligible to life without parole. State Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, introduced a similar bill.  Both pieces of legislation received little traction throughout the year, and were only referred to a committee in the final days of the legislative session, essentially eliminating a possibility for discussion. 

Max told The Beacon that MADP hopes to interest legislators in death-penalty issues by challenging the practice of judges issuing death sentences instead of juries.  Max acknowledged that there hasn’t been much legislative conversation when it comes to death-penalty reforms.

“We need more bipartisan support, and I will honestly tell you that the Democrats in Missouri – even though it’s in their platform – they’re not sticking their neck out,” Max said of the minority party. “They aren’t going to be the ones who carry this over the finish line.” 

Beliefs about capital punishment cross party lines, and sometimes strongly anti-abortion  lawmakers and groups oppose death sentences. The Missouri Catholic Conference is on record opposing executions by the state. 

“If you’re talking to somebody who is really a pro-life individual, and I’m talking from conception to death, then we are able to have some of those conversations in the statehouse,” Max said. “In Missouri, our pro-life movement is not as much Catholic as in some states. But when it comes down to it, that is an argument that will resonate.”

She said there is also room for conversation from a fiscal responsibility perspective. There has never been a full audit of the cost of the practice in Missouri, but a 2017 analysis of 15 state studies from the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission found that pursuing a death-penalty case costs a state on average $700,000 more than sentencing someone to life in prison without parole.

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...