Instead of defying a national trend, Missouri could lead by ending the death penalty

Death penalty opponents last May held a vigil outside St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis.
Death penalty opponents last May held a vigil outside St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis. The Associated Press

Thirty-five prisoners were executed in 2014 in the United States. That’s 35 too many, but at least it was the lowest number in 20 years.

But, shamefully, Missouri is bucking this good trend. It executed a record 10 people in 2014, tying it with Texas for the most of any state in the nation.

In fact, the annual report about all of this from the Death Penalty Information Center shows that Missouri, Texas and Florida accounted for 80 percent of the executions in 2014.

It’s a disgraceful record for Missouri, one of 32 states that still retain the outrageously expensive, unreliable and immoral system of capital punishment. Although no states abolished the death penalty in 2014, half a dozen have done so in the past few years.

That’s an important effort, and it needs to continue as public support for capital punishment keeps falling.

Another positive takeaway from recent years has been the falling number of executions. Last year’s total was just over a third of the 98 that occurred in 1999.

The United States is among the few developed countries still clinging to this arbitrary, vengeful system. Some 140 nations have walked away from capital punishment, leaving the U.S. in the company of such countries as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. In this matter, our country is known for the company it keeps.

Gov. Jay Nixon has consistently failed to stop executions in Missouri. It’s a serious blight on the Democratic governor’s record and an embarrassment to Missourians.

His inaction, however, is in harmony with Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster and a Republican-controlled legislature that cannot find the will even to try to fix the 100-plus faults in the state’s death penalty system that have been identified in a two-year American Bar Association study.

Worse, Missouri, along with Georgia, has been the subject of recent national press coverage for those states’ willingness to execute people with low IQs. In some of these cases, it’s doubtful that those convicted even understand the charges against them. Missouri’s reputation for justice thus grows worse.

Although Kansas continues to have the death penalty on the books — and 10 death row inmates are in state prisons now — it hasn’t executed anyone since 1976.

Reasonable alternatives to the death penalty exist, including, in some cases, life in prison without parole. These alternatives, which are much less expensive to operate, would prevent the execution of some people who aren’t guilty of the crimes they’re convicted of committing.

Do such convictions happen? Indeed, yes. In 2014 alone, seven death row prisoners were exonerated in the U.S.

Is this a one-year phenomenon? Not at all. Since 1973, 150 people have been freed from death row after being exonerated.

Capital punishment should be ended everywhere. It does nothing to bring back the lives that murderers have taken and it forecloses any possible rehabilitation of the convicts.

The system is broken, a moral stain on the people of every state where it’s legal. Although the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t yet ruled it so, it’s the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

This unfixable system must be abolished. State legislators should lead the way in doing that in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere in 2015.