Missouri Legal Team Identifies Problems with State’s Death Penalty System, Recommends Reforms

WASHINGTON, D.C., Mar. 1, 2012 — A two-year review of Missouri’s system of capital punishment recommends a number of key reforms to ensure fairness and to guard against executing the innocent.  The report—sponsored by the _ and released at a press conference at the State Capitol in Jefferson City—suggests several specific, achievable reforms to remedy problems in the capital punishment system, as identified by the group.

The Missouri-based assessment team included current and former judges, a former prosecutor, law school professors and other lawyers from the state.  The team also consulted with a number of state government and judicial entities, as well as law enforcement and criminal justice groups.

“The assessment team in Missouri is a distinguished group of dedicated individuals who are committed to fairness in Missouri’s capital punishment system,” said ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III.  “The report, which is the result of their hard work, provides a thorough analysis of the death penalty system, identifies areas in need of reform, and suggests changes that will ensure justice.”

The report evaluates Missouri’s laws, rules, procedures, standards and guidelines relating to administration of the death penalty, and uses several protocols set by the ABA to evaluate death penalty jurisprudence.  The report found that Missouri is in full compliance with 9 protocols, in partial compliance with 38 and not in compliance with 24.  The team did not have sufficient information to assess compliance with 20 of the protocols.

Assessment team member Douglas Copeland, a St. Louis-based private practice attorney and former president of the Missouri Bar, described the team’s findings.  “We identified substantial problems with the death penalty in Missouri,” he said.  “Our group unanimously agreed there are key reforms needed to ensure fairness in the system and prevent conviction of the innocent.”

The report identified the following issues as most in need of reform:

  • Narrowing the class of cases subject to the death penalty so that capital punishment is available in only the most serious murders;
  • Improving law enforcement and prosecutor practices to better prevent the conviction of the innocent and promote apprehension of the guilty;
  • Implementing safeguards to permit inmates to prove their potential innocence;
  • Prohibiting the execution of the severely mentally ill;
  • Improving standards for defense counsel in death penalty cases; and
  • Revising jury instructions to help jurors better understand their roles and responsibilities in death penalty cases.

The report recommends several measures to bring Missouri into compliance with ABA protocols, including state-specific measures to address the issues raised in the 400-page report.  It urges the state to implement their recommendations in a timely manner to ensure the fairness and accuracy of the capital punishment system.

The report notes that Missouri has made some progress in seeking to achieve fairness and accuracy in its administration of the death penalty.  Those measures include mandatory accreditation of crime laboratories in the state by the end of 2012; creation of the Missouri State Public Defender, a statewide public defender system that represents the vast majority of indigent capital defendants at trial and in subsequent proceedings; and the establishment of measures to protect and defend the independence of the judiciary, which is especially important in capital cases.

The full report and executive summary are available here.

In 2003, the ABA began several comprehensive evaluations of the death penalty, like the one conducted in Missouri.  The ABA has examined administration of the death penalty in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.  The Project expects to release additional reports on Texas and Virginia.  The reports have not been adopted by the ABA House of Delegates.

With nearly 400,000 members, the _ is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world.  As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.

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