chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
December 29, 2020

Missouri FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions About the ABA Assessment on the Missouri Death Penalty

What is the American Bar Association position on the death penalty?

The ABA has no position on whether or not there should be a death penalty. However, it does oppose the imposition of the death penalty on the severely mentally ill. The ABA also continues to support the prohibition of the execution of people with mental retardation and those who were under the age of eighteen at the time they committed a capital offense.

Why did the ABA adopt the Moratorium Resolution?

Because the ABA has concerns that, based on quantifiable findings, the system of capital punishment in the U.S. is rife with problems that result in death sentences being handed down and implemented in a completely arbitrary, haphazard fashion.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated use of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia in 1976, problems persist regarding capital jurisdictions’ ability to ensure consistency and accuracy in the imposition of capital punishment from case to case. Many of the 3,300 death row inmates nationwide did not receive the quality of legal representation that the severity and the finality of a death sentence demand. Inconsistencies in prosecutorial treatment of cases remain a serious problem. Study after study indicates that racial and ethnic bias affects the decision as to who gets prosecuted and who gets sentenced to death. The innocent still are not protected adequately from erroneous conviction. And despite the need for courts to correct the serious missteps that occurred at trial like the ones identified above, the states and federal government have instead placed more restrictions on meaningful appellate review since Gregg.

A system that wrongly sentences people to death and then erects considerable obstacles to bar judicial review of their cases is not a system that is functioning well, and our entire legal system suffers as a consequence. To a substantial extent, this situation has developed because death penalty jurisdictions generally have failed to implement the types of changes called for by existing ABA policies. As a practical matter, the best way to consider and fix this broken system requires removing the pressure of impending executions. It is for these reasons that the ABA, while taking no position on capital punishment per se, supports a halt on executions until capital jurisdictions can (1) ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process, and (2) minimize the risk that innocent persons are executed.

What is the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project?

It’s a project designed by the ABA to monitor and promote progress toward a suspension of executions until capital jurisdictions identify what flaws exist in their system and correct those flaws. In fall 2001, the ABA established its Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (“Moratorium Project”), housed within the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.

Among the Moratorium Project’s many activities is the sponsorship of a series of comprehensive assessments on the operation of several U.S. jurisdictions’ capital punishment laws and processes. Since the ABA’s passage of the Moratorium Resolution, the Association has found that capital jurisdictions have either been unable or unwilling to undertake the kind of comprehensive examination of the death penalty necessary to determine if their system is functioning fairly and accurately. To assist death penalty jurisdictions that have not yet conducted comprehensive examinations of their death penalty systems, the Project decided in February 2003 to examine eight U.S. jurisdictions’ death penalty systems and preliminarily determine the extent to which they achieve fairness and provide due process.

The Project has conducted assessments in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. This “State Assessments Project” is not designed to replace the comprehensive state-funded studies necessary in capital jurisdictions, but it does highlight individual state systems’ successes and inadequacies. Due in large part to the success of this first round of assessments, the Moratorium Project has decided to embark upon a second round of state assessments in six additional states, including in Missouri.

What is the State Assessments Project?

The State Assessments Project is designed to determine if problems exist within a state’s death penalty system and identify those problems so that they can be addressed by the proper authorities.

The Assessments provide information about how the assessed states’ death penalty systems are functioning in design and practice and serve as the basis from which states can reform their systems, impose moratoria, and/or launch comprehensive self-examinations. Because capital punishment is the law of the land in each of the assessment states and because the ABA has no position on the death penalty per se, the assessment teams focus exclusively on capital punishment laws and processes and do not consider whether states, as a matter of morality, philosophy, or penological theory, should have the death penalty.

The assessments are funded by a grant from the European Commission's (“EC”) European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights. As in the first round of assessments, the EC has not sought and does not have any input on the issues we address in each report, who will be hired to conduct the research, how the research is collected, or who will participate on the assessment teams. Nor does the EC have any input in to any state team’s findings and conclusions. The ABA controls the substance and the methodology employed to complete the objectives of the grant proposal.

The assessments use as a benchmark the protocols set out in the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities’ publication, Death without Justice: A Guide for Examining the Administration of the Death Penalty in the United States ("the Protocols"), to preliminarily determine the extent to which state capital punishment systems achieve fairness and due process. The assessments are not intended to cover exhaustively all aspects of the death penalty, but they do cover twelve key pieces of death penalty administration, including (1) progression of a capital case and evolution of the state’s death penalty statute; (2) preservation and testing of DNA evidence; (3) identification and interrogation procedures; (4) forensic services; (5) prosecutors; (6) defense services; (7) the direct appeal process; (8) procedural restrictions and limitations on state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus; (9) clemency proceedings; (10) jury instructions; (11) an independent judiciary; (12) racial and ethnic minorities; and (13) mentally retarded and mentally ill offenders.

Why is the ABA undertaking an examination of the death penalty in Missouri?

In order to obtain a good sense of how the death penalty is working nationwide, the ABA must conduct assessments in as diverse a range of jurisdictions as possible. In choosing state systems to assess, we also consider the number of death row inmates, executions and exonerations in a state. Of the thirty-five states that retain the death penalty, Missouri has executed the fifth-highest number of death row inmates in the U.S. And three people condemned to death in Missouri have been freed due to evidence that each was actually innocent.

The ABA also looks for states that have current laws that conform to long-standing ABA policies on the administration of the death penalty to determine how these laws work in practice. For example, Missouri has a statewide public defender system that handles many capital cases at trial, appeal, and through post conviction. In the ABA’s view, this is a very important component to an effective delivery of defense services to capital defendants and death row inmates.

What steps are being taken to ensure the validity of the assessments, and what methodology is being used?

The ABA is absolutely committed to ensuring the validity of the assessments. Each state assessment has been or is being conducted by a state-based Assessment Team, which is composed of and/or has access to current or former judges, state legislators, current or former prosecutors, current or former defense attorneys, active state bar association leaders, law school professors, and anyone else whom the Project felt was necessary.

The state assessment teams are responsible for analyzing various laws, rules, procedures, standards, and guidelines relating to the administration of the death penalty. In an effort to guide the teams’ research, the Project created an Assessment Guide that details the data to be collected. The teams must then make a determination as to whether their state is in compliance with a range of minimum standards set out in the ABA Protocols.

And while the ABA supports a temporary suspension of executions, Assessment Team members are not required to support a moratorium or to oppose or support the death penalty. Instead team members must be willing to thoughtfully review the administration of the death penalty in Missouri and then make an honest assessment of the fairness and accuracy of that system. No team member was asked about his or her view on the death penalty or a moratorium before selection to the team.

Since the ABA Moratorium Project sponsors the Missouri Assessment Team’s work, does that mean that the Missouri Team must support a moratorium?

No. The Missouri Assessment Team must undertake an objective analysis of the data collected to complete the Assessment Report on the Missouri Death Penalty. The team has only just begun their research and cannot draw any conclusions about the fairness or accuracy of Missouri’s death penalty until the report is complete.

Who are the Members of the Missouri Assessment Team?

  • Professor Stephen C. Thaman, Co-Chair, St. Louis University School of Law;
  • Professor Paul Litton, Co-Chair, University of Missouri – Columbia, School of Law;
  • Mr. Douglas A. Copeland, Partner, Copeland Thompson Farris PC, St. Louis;
  • Ms. Dee Joyce-Hayes, former Circuit Attorney, City of St. Louis; General Counsel, Bi-State Development Agency, a/k/a “Metro”;
  • The Honorable Nanette Laughrey, Judge, U. S. District Court, Western District of Missouri, Jefferson City;
  • The Honorable Stephen Limbaugh, Jr., Judge, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, Cape Girardeau;
  • The Honorable Hal Lowenstein, Missouri Court of Appeals, Retired; Armstrong Teasdale, Kansas City; and
  • Professor Rodney Uphoff, University of Missouri - Columbia.

Who selected the Missouri Assessment Team and why were these team members selected?

The Missouri Assessment Team was selected by the ABA project staff with assistance from various members of the Missouri legal community. The Missouri team reflects a diversity of experience and expertise that will allow the overall review to present a fair, complete and accurate picture of the death penalty across the State.

Have you notified government entities in Missouri that you will be conducting this study?

Yes. We have advised several entities both as a courtesy and to seek their participation during the research process. These entities include the Governor’s Office, Attorney General, Missouri Supreme Court, Office of the State Courts Administrator, Missouri Bar, Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Department of Public Safety, Department of Corrections, Missouri State Highway Patrol, State Public Defender, and leadership in the Missouri Legislature.

Where can I get more information?

For more information please contact one of our Missouri Team co-chairs: Steve Thaman at (314) 977-3306 / [email protected] or Paul Litton at (573) 882-6488 / [email protected]. You can also reach the ABA’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project by contacting project director Sarah Turberville at (202) 662-1595 or [email protected]. More information about the Missouri Assessment and the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project is available on our home page.