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Missouri remains rare state with judge-imposed death sentences

The January execution of Amber McLaughlin drew headlines not just because she was the first openly transgender person executed in the United States but also because a judge, rather than a jury, sentenced her to die.

Missouri law allows judges to impose the death penalty when the jury is unable to agree on punishment. The only other state with a similar law is Indiana.

Although that law remains controversial, the Missouri Supreme Court has upheld its constitutionality, most recently in 2019.

After Craig Michael Wood was convicted of abducting, raping and killing a 10-year-old girl, a jury unanimously found several aggravating factors that qualified Wood for the death penalty but deadlocked on whether there were mitigating factors that outweighed those aggravators.

The judge then sentenced Wood to death, which the Supreme Court affirmed. In a 4-3 ruling, the majority said determining whether a defendant is eligible for a death sentence requires the jury to make factual findings, while selecting the defendant’s punishment is a discretionary act to apply mercy or not.

“Neither a jury nor a judge can prove or disprove a conclusion the evidence on one side outweighs the evidence on the other,” Judge Zel. M. Fischer wrote for the majority. “After the jury found the existence of multiple aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, the determination of whether Wood’s personal circumstances mitigated the brutality of his crime was a discretionary judgment call that neither the state nor federal constitution entrusts exclusively to the jury.”

The Missouri Supreme Court reached similar conclusions in 2013 in State v. Shockley and in 2008 in a challenge brought by McLaughlin. Wood had argued that those cases should no longer be followed under a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Hurst v. Florida. But Missouri’s high court said that ruling merely barred judges from independently finding the aggravating circumstances supporting the death sentence.

Wood’s case brought a dissent from three judges who disagreed that Missouri’s law does not require a factual determination in weighing the aggravating and mitigating factors.

“It does,” Judge Laura Denvir Stith wrote. “It requires the jury to weigh and balance the evidence supporting mitigation with the evidence in aggravation — a weighing and balancing each of our jurors is called on to make every day in our courts.”

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