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Advocates Call for Killing the Death Penalty

February 26, 1999
By: David Grebe
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 424, HB 425

JEFFERSON CITY - Activists trying to kill capital punishment dominated a statehouse hearing on the issue Wednesday night. The House Criminal Justice Committee heard one bill abolishing the death penalty and another forbidding the state from executing the retarded.

Columbia's lawmakers are divided on the death penalty. Rep. Vicky Riback-Wilson has co-sponsored both bills, and Rep. Tim Harlan says he's supports them. But Rep. Chuck Graham says he supports the death penalty - and says he has doubts about the bill to exclude retarded people from capital punishment.

"I think that the idea is right, but I want to make sure the language is narrow in scope," Graham said. "Who's gonna decide if someone's going to have the cognitive ability?"

Steve Jacobs, who works at St. Francis House in Columbia, said he knew the accused killer of David Weber - who was slain at Columbia car wash in December.

"Our first reaction was, that man's not smart enough to murder someone," Jacobs said. Jacobs said that if the suspect, Fred Stone, was guilty - then someone likely put him up to it.

The Pope's successful intervention to spare the life of convicted killer Darrell Mease has drawn significant attention to the issue -- both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Opponents argue the Mease commutation is just another example of how arbitrary and capricious the death penalty is.

"A black person who kills a white person is four times as likely to be sentenced to death than any other combination," said John Galliher, a sociologist at MU. Galliher said the disparity in sentencing stems from the prosecutor's discretion.

The families of murder victims were divided on the issue. "I was a supporter of the death penalty before," said William Long. Long's father and mother-in-law were murdered in DeSoto in 1996. Long said the murderer knew what he was doing - and planned the event. He said the murderer had no compassion - and even testified that he laughing as he killed.

Long said the murderer has been sentenced to die - but that he execution date has not yet been set. He says the execution will bring "release."

But John Griffith, whose son Chris was killed in 1986, said he knew his son's murderer was just another victim of a violence-prone society. Griffith said his pain wasn't eased by the murderer's execution. "Healing is not found in revenge, but forgiveness," he said.

Christian and secular ideas mixed freely during the hearing. John Gaydos, Catholic bishop of the Jefferson City diocese, said opposition to the death penalty wasn't a "callous disregard of victims."

Gaydos alluded to his opposition to abortion - a position more popular with many lawmakers - and called on them to be "unconditionally pro-life."

"Executing people just creates a whole new set of victims," said pastor Larry Rice of New Life Evangelistic Ministries. He added that the state offers no support to the families of people it is executing.

He also said the death penalty was unjust. "I've never seen a millionaire get the death penalty - the duPont's don't get it, the Menendez brothers didn't get it," he added.

Rep. John Loudon, R-Ballwin, entered into a brief Biblical colloquy with Rice about the meaning of Genesis 9:9, which he said appeared to endorse the death penalty. "Jesus Christ shed his blood for us all, and we don't need to seek vengeance," Rice responded. He says the New Covenant emphasizes forgiveness.

Presently, Missouri has 87 people on death row - and up to 13 could be put to death this year. Graham said he thought the chances for a death penalty repeal were nil. "The number of witnesses doesn't equal the number of votes," he said.