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October 30, 2023

Missouri Judge Imposes Life Sentence in Capital Case Following Collapse of Defense Team

By Vita Shats, DPRP Intern

On September 8, 2023, 45-year-old Ian McCarthy was sentenced to life in prison without parole by Missouri Circuit Court Judge Marco A. Roldan for killing Clinton Police Officer Gary Lee Michael, Jr. The sentencing decision was made by the judge after the jury could not unanimously agree on a sentence of life or death.

In 2017, Officer Michael pulled over Mr. McCarthy for a routine traffic stop. Mr. McCarthy left his vehicle and fatally shot the officer with a rifle. He fled the scene in his SUV and crashed his vehicle before fleeing on foot.

At trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and the case moved on to the penalty phase where the jury would vote on whether to sentence the defendant to life or death. On the final day of trial in the penalty phase, Mr. McCarthy’s defense team fell apart. His two lead attorneys unexpectedly had to cease participating in the case due to personal emergencies, leaving Mr. McCarthy with only one inexperienced defense attorney to represent him. Without any warning or time to prepare, this attorney had to examine three witnesses and present the closing argument unassisted.

The jury subsequently failed to reach a unanimous decision regarding penalty, leaving the sentencing decision to the trial judge. Currently, only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to render a verdict on a death sentence when a unanimous jury decision cannot be reached. In the majority of other jurisdictions that require jury unanimity, a single vote for life on the jury is sufficient to render a life verdict, while a handful allow for retrial under such circumstances. This was the first time Judge Roldan was faced with this decision. 

Result of Single Life Vote by Juror

Result of Single Life Vote by Juror

Based on table found at

Before the judge imposed a sentence, ABA Death Penalty Representation Project Director Emily Olson-Gault submitted a declaration outlining the extensive responsibilities of counsel at the sentencing phase of trial and the need for two qualified attorneys representing the defendant at every stage of proceedings. Her declaration emphasized “the harm to both the defendant and the judicial system that can result from proceeding through trial with unqualified counsel.”

Because of the potential for such harm, the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment & Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases require the defense team to consist of “no fewer than two attorneys qualified in accordance with Guideline 5.1, an investigator, and a mitigation specialist.” A single attorney, unassisted by a qualified team, may be unprepared to effectively represent their client. This practice is rooted in the longstanding recognition that death penalty cases are particularly complex and demanding. Having a team of at least two attorneys allows for a division of responsibilities, enabling them to conduct thorough investigations, prepare to address aggravating evidence introduced by the State, and avoid opening the door to information that could harm their client. Having more than one attorney also helps mitigate the risk of errors and prevent burnout that may occur if a single attorney bears the entire case’s burden.

The Guidelines also recognize that effective representation requires counsel to have training and experience unique to capital cases. The attorney who was forced to represent Mr. McCarthy alone on the final day of the penalty trial had no prior experience handling death penalty cases, and his only prior specialized capital defense training was focused on the jury selection process.

The week after this declaration was submitted, and after considering arguments about the constitutionality of the Missouri system that allows a judge to take over sentencing responsibility from the jury, Judge Roldan imposed a sentence of life in prison without parole for Mr. McCarthy. He said the constitutional authority for judges to impose a death penalty should be determined by a higher court.

The information and views provided in the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Death Penalty Representation Project’s blog do not constitute official statements by the ABA and do not represent official ABA policy. For more information, please visit our policy and statement pages.