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Death Sentences Questioned

September 04, 2002
By: Jason McLure and Alyssa Ford
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A group of anti-death penalty critics say a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision could prove a reprieve for at least eight Missouri death row inmates -- including the latest death sentence from Columbia.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has claimed the ruling will not affect any Missouri inmates.

But the group Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, the Missouri Catholic Conference and a mid-Missouri public defender said Wednesday that it's not that clear.

In Ring vs. Arizona, the court determined that an Arizona law which allowed a judge to determine whether the crime was heinous enough to warrant death violated the constitutional right to be tried by a jury.

The Attorney General has agreed that there are eight on Missouri's death row with death sentences imposed by a judge rather than a jury.

Nixon argues that the circumstances are different than Ring case.

But Donald Catlett, a Missouri capital crimes public defender, disagreed. He said that Missouri's death sentencing statutes are confusing and often misinterpreted by juries.

Under Missouri law, a jury essentially must make two decisions in determining the sentence.

First is a factual finding concerning circumstances of the crime and the defendant. If the jury determines those circumstances are sufficient to warrant death, the jury then must vote on death or life in prison.

It's that first decision which the Ring decision suggests cannot be decided by a judge if the jury is hung.

Catlett said that in some of the Missouri cases it is unclear whether the jury was hung over the first or the second part of the sentencing state.

The Attorney General's office disagrees.

"The jury instructions in Missouri are crystal clear, " said Scott Holste, spokesman for the Attorney General.

"The Attorney General thinks there is no confusion with the jury instructions or the statutes. Missouri statutes are very different than the Arizona statutes that were found to be unconstitutional."

Catlett and others at Wednesday's news conference claim four inmates have been executed in Missouri since 1985 in court proceedings that may have been in violation of the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

As the Ring decision is narrow in scope, Catlett said he expects Missouri's statutes to be challenged separately in the U.S. Supreme Court unless they are revised.

Larry Weber of the Missouri Catholic Conference said the ruling is not so sweeping as to force a moratorium on executions in Missouri, but he agreed that the Court's decision will force a reexamination of state law.

"Missouri law does not comply with the spirit of Ring," he said.

Currently eight inmates are on Missouri's death row as a result of judge's sentence following a deadlocked jury.

Among them are Deandre Buchanan, sentenced to death in April by a judge in Boone County after a jury failed to unanimously agree on a sentence.

Buchanan was convicted of killing his aunt, stepfather, and girl friend with a shotgun in November of 2000.