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Home / Featured / Death’s decline: The death penalty remains in full effect in Missouri, but its use is dwindling

Death’s decline: The death penalty remains in full effect in Missouri, but its use is dwindling

mans hands behind bars in jail or prison image

Missouri is a national outlier in its use of the death penalty. But even as support for it remains high among elected officials, its use is far rarer than it once was.

As of February 2023, Missouri has carried out 95 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a constitutionally permissible punishment in 1976. The state accounts for about 6 percent of the 1,564 death sentences carried out nationwide during that time. Overall, Missouri is one of the most prolific in use of the death penalty; only Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia and Florida have executed more people in that span.

However, most of those executions occurred in earlier decades, and numbers have since waned. Nationally, the peak occurred in 1999, when 98 people were put to death in a single calendar year. Nine of those executions occurred in Missouri, which represented the state’s all-time high until 2014, an unusually active year in which 10 people were executed.

On average, Missouri’s 95 executions have taken about 15 years between the time of the crime and the date of execution, but that figure varies quite a bit by decade. Approximately half of all Missouri executions occurred between 1989 and 2000; those 46 cases averaged 12.3 years in length; the longest wait was 19 years.

In contrast, the remaining 49 executions averaged 17.7 years in length, with one case that took more than 36 years. Since 2020, there have been six executions. The average wait crept up to 22.8 years. The most recent crime for which the state has put someone to death this decade was 2005.

“It used to be measured in years. Now it’s measured in decades,” said Richard Dieter, who heads the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Graphic showing executions per year, 1977-2023

‘Innocence as an issue’

Dieter said a major reason that death penalty cases have grown both rarer and longer is the increased focus on the potential for wrongful convictions. Cases are getting more scrutiny from groups such as Missouri’s Midwest Innocence Project, which has lengthened the appeals progress. That longer process, he added, allows more time for witnesses to recant or for new evidence to emerge.

“Many factors have led to the decline, but innocence as an issue in the death penalty really exposed the other problems, like ineffectiveness of counsel, racism and prosecutorial misconduct,” Dieter said.

Certainly, delays from litigation or court-imposed moratoriums have become more frequent. In the first decade of Missouri’s reintroduction of the death penalty, only one calendar year (1994) saw no executions, but since then there have been seven years in which no one was put to death. From 2006 and 2012 there were just two executions while a federal lawsuit that alleged that the state’s execution lethal injection protocol constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Following the unsuccessful end of that challenge, the state carried out 18 executions during a 22-month period — 10 of them in 2014 alone.

According to the advocacy group Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, there are currently 18 people awaiting execution in the state. The most recent conviction is that of Richard Emery, who was found guilty last year of murdering a St. Charles family in 2018 and whose case is now on direct appeal.

Others have been on death row for many years — including three whose crimes occurred in the 1980s. On March 1, the Missouri Supreme Court set a June 6 execution date for Michael Tisius, who was convicted of the 2000 deaths of two jailers during a botched escape. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey is also seeking an execution date for Brian Dorsey, who was convicted of killing two people in Boone County in 2006. An execution date had not been set as of press time.

Annie Gibson, the prosecutor for Daviess County and the current president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said death penalty cases are complex, and a prosecutor’s decision to pursue such a penalty depends on the nature of the crime, the defendant’s criminal history, the wishes of the victim and mental health considerations.

“I think part of it is community sentiment regarding the death penalty is changing,” Gibson said. “I also think the process of seeking the death penalty is very long and complicating, often delaying justice for long periods of time. Missouri prosecutors like to weigh all of these factors in making these difficult decisions. But it is a very difficult choice to make in some situations.”

graphic showing racial composition of executed inmates

Gender and racial factors

The vast majority of executed prisoners in the U.S. are men — just 18 women, constituting just 1.2 percent of total executions, have been put to death nationally. That figure includes Amber McLaughlin, whom Missouri executed in January for raping and killing an ex-girlfriend 19 years ago. McLaughlin is believed to be the only openly transgender person executed in the United States, though McLaughlin’s transition occurred long after the murder and conviction.

Sixty percent of executions in Missouri, and 56 percent nationally, have featured white inmates. Yet while Black people comprise only about 12 percent of the population, they constitute a disproportionate number of executions: 39 percent in Missouri, and 34 percent nationally. Arguments regarding racial disparities in use of the death penalty cropped up in Missouri most recently in the days before Kevin Johnson’s execution in November. A special prosecutor argued that “racist prosecution techniques infected” Johnson’s original trial in St. Louis County for killing a police officer. The Missouri Supreme Court, however, declined to halt the proceedings to allow for further investigation.

According to data provided by the Death Penalty Information Center, Missouri’s 95 executed inmates were responsible for the deaths of at least 66 men and 64 women. The victims of the 57 white offenders were overwhelmingly Caucasian; only one offender, Robert O’Neal, who was executed in 1995, killed a black victim. Of the 38 non-white offenders, half were convicted of killing at least one white victim. All but one of the offenders was Black; the lone exception was Emmet Nave, who is listed as American Indian or Alaska Native and was executed in 1996.

Graphic showing time between crime and execution

Efforts to abolish

The death penalty is almost certain to remain legal in Missouri for the foreseeable future, though there is a small and bipartisan effort to change that. This year, three state representatives — two Democrats and one Republican — have filed bills that would abolish the death penalty and automatically resentence those previously sentenced to death to life in prison without parole. None has even been referred to committee.

Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-St. Louis and an attorney, is the author of one of those bills and has filed similar legislation for the past five years.

“Right now, it seems like an open and shut conversation where I’m being told ‘You’re wrong’ every time I file it, and we’re not interested in talking about it,” she said. “Just opening the conversation would be a victory.”

But Unsicker said she sees no contradiction between combatting crime and being unwilling to allow the government to execute people, particularly given the number of cases in recent years in which convictions in murder cases have been overturned.

“I think you can be tough on crime without saying the government should be executing people who might be innocent,” she said.

Reporter Chloe Murdock contributed to this report

RELATED: Missouri remains rare state with judge-imposed death sentences

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