Steve Paul

On the death penalty in Missouri: a moment of reflection

A view inside the death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo.
A view inside the death chamber at the Missouri Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo. Associated Press File Photo

He paused and turned his head. A flourescent light overhead glared on his glasses. For a moment it seemed as if Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was choking up. He certainly projected a somber tone befit the subject.

“We take our responsibility very carefully,” he told The Star’s editorial board last week, responding to a question about whether the state would rethink its policy and protocols on the death penalty.

While the state prepares to execute another death-row inmate — convicted killer Michael Worthington — as midnight turns into Wednesday, a national spotlight will continue to shine on Missouri.

Assuming that 11th-hour appeals will fail in the Worthington case, the state would catch up to Texas and Florida in the ranking of most executions carried out so far this year. And all will be watching against a background of three botched chemical injections — in Arizona, Ohio and Oklahoma — in 2014 alone that have alarmed policy makers, legal observers and death penalty opponents.

Nixon’s 16-year tenure As Missouri attorney general coincided with about five dozen death penalties in the state, and since arriving at the governor’s mansion in 2009, he has the experience and inner anxieties that must have accompanied nine — soon to be 10 — executions.

The silver-haired Nixon did not address the secrecy that surrounds Missouri’s sourcing of the lethal drug used by the Department of Corrections, not even to say that, as a single product it’s different from the combination of chemicals used in Arizona and elsewhere. Lawsuits challenging the state’s secrecy have been filed on behalf of 16 death-row inmates.

But Nixon did acknowledge the nation is addressing this troubling issue, which Star reporter Tony Rizzo updated over the weekend.

“There’s a legitimate discussion in the country,” Nixon said, “about the ultimate punishment.”

Attorney General Eric Holder last week called for more transparency by those empowered “to end a human life.” And his Justice Department is continuing a review of the death penalty nationwide.

Missouri is on target to carry out a record number of executions this year. It’s not a record of which to be proud.

Steve Paul, editorial page columnist: 816-234-4762,; on Twitter: @sbpaul.