Status of death penalty remains uncertain
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Status of death penalty remains uncertain

Date: April 4, 2007
By: Matt Tilden
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 820, SB 660

JEFFERSON CITY - With the state's death penalty procedure stalled in court, Missouri's House has taken a step to protect members of the execution team from the media and the public. 

A bill was given approval in the House Tuesday that allows for the creation of an execution team by the Department of Corrections and mandates that the identities of the members on the team be kept confidential. It also creates a misdemeanor crime of knowingly disclosing the identity of a member of the execution team.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Danielle Moore, R-Fulton, said that the Missouri Department of Corrections asked her to propose the bill and that once she was assured by the Department of Corrections that her bill would have no effect on the current legal battle in the state, she decided to propose the bill.

An identical proposal has also been raised by Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, and is included in a package of crime-related proposals that have been condensed into one bill.

Moore said that under this bill, members of the execution team will be protected from a smear campaign or from retaliation. She also said that because of the anonymity afforded to team members under this proposal, more people will be willing to participate in state executions.

"The most positive impact that it will have is that physicians who do not perform but assist with the lethal injections will be afforded anonymity unless there is litigation," Moore said.

Rep. John Burnett, D-Jackson County, is opposed to the legislation, and said that he believes it is not a good idea to for the state to limit public access to an event as important as a state execution.

Burnett says that he would be in favor of "reasonable restrictions" on executioner identities, but feels the current legislation goes too far.

Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said that the department is pleased with the initial approval of the bill in the House. Hauswirth cited a July 30, 2006 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch titled, "Behind the mask of the execution doctor" as a reason for the Department of Corrections recommending the bill.

The article included the name and information about a Jefferson City doctor who helped develop the state's execution protocol, as well as the name of his wife and his brothers. Hauswirth said that the Department of Corrections asked the Post-Dispatch not to print the identity of the doctor prior to the article's publishing.

Hauswirth said that the Post-Dispatch article sent "shock waves" through the Department of Corrections and that they have trouble finding people willing to participate in executions since its publication in last July.

"When the Post-Dispatch decided to publish his picture, give his name, his wife's name, brothers' names, the Director of the Department felt they crossed the line," Hauswirth said. 

Missouri executions have been on hold since June of last year, when U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. ruled on behalf of a Missouri death row inmate, Michael A. Taylor, who claimed that the methods used in Missouri's execution pose an unreasonable risk of an excruciating execution.

The Missouri Department of Corrections have appealed Gaitan's ruling because, according to Hauswirth, they believe the judge has imposed requirements that exceed constitutional standards. The case is currently in front of a 3-judge panel on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and is awaiting a ruling.