In a year when U.S. executions declined to the lowest level in 24 years, Missouri maintained its place among the country’s most active death penalty states in 2015.
It carried out six death sentences, second only to Texas, which executed 13. A year earlier, those two states topped the nation with 10 executions each.
But change appears to be coming.
A growing number of conservatives, who have traditionally supported capital punishment, are questioning its use. A Republican senator has introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty. A hearing on that bill is scheduled today in Jefferson City.
“I think we’re going to see a very different year in Missouri with very few to no executions,” said Staci Pratt, state coordinator with Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
Missouri’s last execution took place Sept. 1, and it has none set for 2016.
Only two of the 27 men now imprisoned on Missouri death sentences have exhausted their appeals. The state Supreme Court sets execution dates after appeals end.
Missouri’s execution slowdown comes at a time when the death penalty seems to be withering nationwide.
The number of people sentenced to death decreased last year to a 40-year low, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. Even courts in Texas, the country’s perennial death-penalty leader, imposed only two death sentences.
“The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country.”
No new death-sentenced prisoners were admitted to Missouri prisons in 2014 or 2015.
In Kansas, which hasn’t carried out an execution since 1965, only one new death sentence was imposed in 2015, and that was on F. Glenn Miller Jr., the anti-Semite convicted of killing three people outside Jewish facilities in Johnson County. It was the state’s first new death sentence since 2011.
Like Missouri, a bill seeking the repeal of the death penalty in Kansas is also planned this year.
Several factors contributed to Missouri’s recent place among the nation’s leading execution states, experts say.
Litigation and problems obtaining lethal injection drugs resulted in the state executing only two prisoners between 2006 and 2012.
But after switching to pentobarbital as its drug and resolving legal issues, Missouri has carried out 18 executions since November 2013.
And while other states have continued to have problems finding sources for execution drugs, Missouri has obtained a steady and apparently unlimited supply from a source that state officials have refused to reveal despite legal challenges to that secrecy.
Missouri also has been free of any reported botched executions, which have prompted officials in other states to delay executions or halt them altogether.
State law enforcement officials led by Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster have staunchly defended capital punishment and aggressively litigated any challenges.
“Attorney General Koster has consistently supported the death penalty for the most serious murder convictions,” said spokeswoman Nanci Gonder. “One of the duties of the attorney general is to ensure that legal punishments for violating Missouri’s criminal laws are carried out, which he continues to do.”
The men executed in Missouri during the last two years were sentenced years ago when attitudes about capital punishment were vastly different, Pratt noted.
“Most were on death row for more than 15 years,” she said. “We were looking at a snapshot of history. Today we are beginning to see a shift.”
Though a majority of Americans still express support for the death penalty, that percentage was close to its lowest level in 20 years, the Death Penalty Information Center reported.
Dudley Sharp, an outspoken pro-death-penalty and victim rights activist, said the death penalty still serves an important role as a deterrent.
It also ensures that the most dangerous killers are prevented from harming more victims.
“Living murderers harm and murder again,” he said. “Executed ones do not.”
Pratt said that her group supports the bill to repeal capital punishment.
Several other death penalty states have done that in recent years.
Such a move has support from both sides of the political spectrum, she believes.
Pratt said there are just too many questions about the cost of capital punishment, the arbitrary nature of how it’s used and whom it’s used for.
“It’s a broken system,” Pratt said. “It’s not viable and it should end.”
Last year, a University of North Carolina professor released a study of the death penalty in Missouri that found killers of white victims were much more likely to be executed than killers of black victims.
Murders of white females were 14 times more likely to result in a death sentence than those involving black male victims, according to the study.
Though African-Americans make up about 12 percent of Missouri’s population, they account for almost 40 percent of those executed in the modern era of the death penalty.
There is also a geographic discrepancy in the application of the death penalty, the study found.
A vast majority of those executed have come from just three of the state’s 114 counties.
St. Louis County, with 23, has been by far the most prolific. Jackson County and the city of St. Louis have each had eight, according to the study.