In a year where executions ebbed nationally to a 20-year low, Missouri carried out a record number of death sentences in 2014.
The state executed 10 men — the most it has ever put to death in any year — and matched Texas as the states with the most executions in 2014.
Missouri alone tallied 28 percent of the nation’s 35 executions for the year. And the state’s first 2015 execution already has been scheduled, for Jan. 28.
“This was an unusual year,” Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said of Missouri’s record-setting pace.
A major factor was the pro-death penalty stance of the state’s political leaders, Dieter said. Missouri also found a steady source of execution drugs, and it avoided the high-profile botched executions that halted additional executions in states like Oklahoma and Ohio, which typically are among the nation’s most active death penalty states.
But what happened in Missouri in 2014, he said, also reflects what happened 15 or 20 years ago.
Back then, prosecutors sought, and juries and courts imposed, many more death sentences than they do today. As those inmates exhausted their appeals, legal impediments to their executions ended, Dieter said.
Joe Luby of the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic in Kansas City agreed that many of the men executed this year were sentenced to death in an era when death sentences were imposed much more commonly than they are now.
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Missouri carried out a steady number of yearly executions, averaging about five a year. But after five executions in 2005, legal questions surfaced about the drugs Missouri and other states used for lethal injections.
Executions dropped in Missouri and nationally until 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of those drugs. But after an uptick in 2009, executions again declined as European drug manufacturers began refusing to supply the drugs because of moral opposition to capital punishment.
That prompted death-penalty states to scramble for new supplies or alternative drugs, which led to a continued decrease in executions.
But while many other states continue to have those problems, Missouri adopted a new execution drug in late 2013 and found a supplier. Since November 2013, only two months have gone by without an execution in Missouri.
“Missouri seems to have avoided that (drug problem) for the time being,” said Fordham University professor Deborah Denno.
Texas and Missouri appear to be the only states that have found a compounding pharmacy to mix and provide a steady supply of pentobarbital to carry out executions, Luby said. For some reason, other states have been unable to do that, and even Texas appears to have some problems obtaining the drug, according to Luby.
He and other attorneys who represent Missouri’s death row inmates have sought to find the drug source, but have been unable to persuade the courts to order the state to provide more details.
“I don’t know where they are obtaining their drugs, and I don’t know why Missouri is uniquely able to get them,” Luby said.
Missouri has two staunch proponents of the death penalty in Gov. Jay Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster, national experts agree.
“You can’t ignore the politics of the situation,” Luby said. “I’ve never heard of a politician in Missouri or anywhere else voted out of office for being too tough on crime.”
Before he was governor, Nixon served as attorney general at the time when many of those now being executed were prosecuted and appealed their cases. All of those executed in 2014 asked Nixon for clemency. He granted none of those requests.
Koster’s office has fought all legal efforts by condemned inmates to stay their executions.
In Missouri, the state supreme court sets execution dates. From 2006 through 2012, only two executions occurred because of litigation over the drugs used in Missouri’s lethal injections.
In mid-2013, Koster questioned why the court wasn’t setting dates for inmates whose appeals had been exhausted. He argued in court filings that the Missouri Supreme Court was “effectively negating Missouri’s death penalty statute.”
“We are simply left with an open-ended future of a law not being enforced,” he said.
Within months, the court, without comment, set an execution date. But the issues over the drug Missouri intended to use caused state officials to call off that execution. Nixon then ordered the Department of Corrections to modify its execution protocol to include a different drug.
Once Missouri shifted to using pentobarbital, the court began setting one execution per month. The courts stayed only two executions in 2014, both because of issues specific to the defendants, not on more general legal issues.
“For nearly a decade, the mere pendency of federal litigation was used as an artificial hurdle by the Missouri Supreme Court to prevent the state from carrying out the death penalty,” a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office said when asked for a comment for this story. “The Missouri Supreme Court changed that practice in late 2013, and resumed scheduling execution dates.”
A spokesperson for the Supreme Court declined to comment.
National death penalty experts say that the state’s flurry of executions is unlikely to persist. That’s because fewer people are being sentenced to death in Missouri and nationally.
The 72 new death sentences imposed nationwide in 2014 marked the lowest number in 40 years, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and continued a steadily declining number of death sentences in recent years.
In Missouri, 1997 was the last year in which the state had as many as 10 new death sentences, according to Dieter. The state has been averaging one or two new death sentences annually over the last four or five years, he said.
Experts say that the declining use of the death penalty is a reflection of changing public attitudes about the fairness and expense of capital punishment. Concerns about botched executions and stories of death row inmates being exonerated also have played a role.
The use of the death penalty has become more concentrated in fewer states. Only seven states carried out executions in 2014, and Texas, Missouri and Florida accounted for 80 percent of those.
“The relevancy of the death penalty in our criminal justice system is seriously in question when 43 out of our 50 states do not apply the ultimate sanction,” Dieter said. “The U.S. will likely continue with some executions in the years ahead, but the rationale for such sporadic use is far from clear.”
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Missouri inmates executed in 2014
Herbert Smulls, 56, convicted of killing a suburban St. Louis jeweler in a 1991 robbery.
Michael Taylor, 47, convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Kansas City teenager Ann Harrison in 1989.
Jeffrey Ferguson, 59, convicted of raping and killing a teenager in St. Charles County in 1989.
William Rousan, 57, convicted in the 1993 deaths of a farm couple in Washington County.
John Winfield, 46, convicted in the 1996 deaths of two women in St. Louis County.
John Middleton, 54, convicted in Harrison County of killing three people in 1995.
Michael Worthington, 43, convicted of raping and killing a St. Louis County woman in 1995.
Earl Ringo, 40, convicted of killing two people in a 1998 robbery of a Columbia restaurant.
Leon Taylor, 56, convicted of killing an Independence gas station attendant in 1994.
Paul Goodwin, 48, convicted in the 1998 killing of a St. Louis County woman.