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Lawmaker would impose moratorium to 2005 on the death penalty for a study

April 15, 2002
By: Sonia Valero
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 731

JEFFERSON CITY - Kevin Green said he was almost sentenced to die 23 years ago.

In 1979, Green was accused of raping and beating his pregnant wife and causing the death of their unborn child in the Orange County, Calif.

Green maintained his innocence, but his wife's testimony convicted him in the absence of physical evidence.

After serving 16 years of a life sentence, Green was released after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Today, he is among the Missourians lobbying for a moratorium on executions.

Earlier this spring, he was one of seven witnesses who testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation to create a commission to study the death penalty and impose a temporary moratorium on executions.

"Across the states, 104 people were released because of DNA evidence and I was number 36," Green told the committee. "The majority of people condemned are minorities, poor and illiterate. Only three of us had a high school diploma or college education," Green said.

He said he does not oppose the death penalty, but said he is not sure it has its purpose today.

"I know for a fact that executing the man who killed my daughter is not going to bring my marriage back or bring memories of what I was hoping to have as a father back," Green said. "I do not believe that killing the person who killed my loved ones is justice".

Despite overwhelming support for the death penalty among Missouri lawmakers, lawmakers have been proposing a moratorium for the last several years.The current measure is sponsored by Sen. Mary Bland, D-Kansas City -- who has sponsored similar measures since 2000. She said those against her bill do not want to admit that the study might show that something is wrong with the system.

"The majority of the committee are attorneys and they know that the system is many times not just," Bland said. "If one person is innocent and is put to death, then all of us have to be responsible for that. One error is too much."

Bland said her intent is not to abolish the death penalty.

"We need to focus our attention on how do we use preventive measures to try to get to the point where we do not have to put people to death," Bland said.

Bland said 76 percent of the people on death row were counseled by public defenders who were mostly new lawyers trying to get experience.

"Can we afford for people who are learning to represent people whose life is in jeopardy?," Bland said. "The system has to set up a way to be able to pay handsomely public defenders so this will promote seasoned lawyers to do this job."

She added that the system is lopsided because not only poor, mentally retarded or uneducated people are committing crimes.

"We see it every day on television: if you have money, you can get out for the most part," Bland said. "They are not executed, they go to jail, come out and write books and become millionaires. Is that justice?"

Rep. Sam Gaskill, R-Washburn, said he is sympathetic to Bland's intent, but said he cannot agree on a moratorium.

"For those people that are a continuous threat to our society and do not have any possibility of rehabilitation, something needs to be done to them," Gaskill said.

"I'm not necessarily saying we need to execute all those people, but on the other hand the public should not have to pay for their upkeep and maintenance indefinitely or the rest of their life or whatever their imprisonment would be. It costs more to keep them in prison than to educate someone in college," Gaskill said.

But the House Committee on Legislative Research reported Missouri would save around $1.3 million annually from reduced expenses by the state's Public Defender System if the death penalty were abolished.

Also saved by a moratorium would be $6,300 the Corrections Department estimates it costs to conduct an execution -- mostly to pay staff for overtime.

Those savings would be offset by the cost of housing the extra inmates -- estimated at 6 inmates per year who otherwise would be executed. Legislative staff estimate that extra cost would be $109,000 in fiscal year 2004 and $219,000 in the subsequent fiscal year.

However, financial considerations are not a factor for many lawmakers who support the death penalty.

"It is a deterant, biblical and Christian," said Rep. Bill Linton, R-St. Louis County.

Linton said the death penalty is a good law and the system provides enough opportunities to appeal, even up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We do not need a commission which moreover would create another layer of bureaucracy," Linton said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman -- Sen. Dave Klarich, R-St. Louis County -- helped pass a bill two years ago that reduced the average duration of legal proceedings for capital punishment cases.

Klarich asked Bland if she thought the change was working. But Bland replied that the majority of people put to death in Missouri were poor people, uneducated or retarded and most of them have poor representation.

Elizabeth Unger, the former President of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, testified in favor of the bill. She said it is time to look at the system she called 'the pageant of death'.

For Unger, there are two main reasons to study the process: the arbitrariness and the unreliability of the death penalty.

Unger backed her claims with a recent study of the death penalty's application from 1979 to 1995.

She said there are striking geographic differences in the way the death penalty is used in Missouri, as well as disparities in the imposition of the death sentences based on the ethnic origin of the victim and defendant.

Unger also said executions widen the circle of victims because it "revictimizes" those who have already been harmed and creates new victims in the process. She said jurors who must decide life or death are traumatized.

"The victims' families I met are traumatized by the process, but admitted although it was terrible, they would support it anyway," Unger said.

Only one person testified against the bill during the hearing. Bev Ehlen, from the Missouri chapter of Concerned Women for America, said that if the system has some problems it would be better to fix it rather than to eliminate a system she said has been around since Biblical times.

"The death penalty was instituted to remove evil from society and as a deterant," Ehlen said. "But the defendant could only be found guilty and executed if there were two witnesses and if they were found to be false witnesses they would fall under the death penalty as well."

Ehlen added that she testified against this bill because its proponents are opponents of the death penalty.

"This penalty is required and used to be considered a penalty for rape," Ehlen said. "It is important for those children that for years and years and years end having that done to them."