We’ve gotten emails from a conservative group proudly announcing that the conservatives appear to have realized the death penalty needs reassessment.
It’s interesting that there is a certain amount of chest-thumping about this discovery because until now the conservative majority in the Missouri legislature has turned up its collective nose at any proposal by Democrats to study the issue or to just repeal the death penalty.
You can ask Senate minority leader Joseph Keaveny about the seemingly sudden shift. He has tried to get legislation approved to study the issue for several years but has been rebuffed repeatedly.
Be that as it may, Senator Paul Wieland’s bill to repeal the death penalty has cleared a Senate committee and is going to the full senate for debate with a committee recommendation that the Senate approve the bill. Wieland’s latest press release squarely addresses an issue that critics say the pro-life forces have sidestepped for years—at least in the eyes of death penalty opponents. “I am a devout Catholic,” says Wieland in his release, “and I believe if I’m going to be pro-life, I should be so on both ends of the spectrum—from conception to natural death.”
No one will be watching this bill more than Earl M. Forrest.
The state Supreme Court has set a May 11 execution date for him because back in 2002 he got into an argument with a woman about her purchase of a mobile home and a lawn mower from him. He killed her and a man who was at her home, took $25,000 worth me meth and went to his home. When law enforcement officers showed up, he got into a shootout with them and killed a Dent County deputy sheriff and wounded the county sheriff. Forrest was wounded. He’s now 66 years old. The U. S. Supreme Court has refused to review his case and all of his state and federal appeals otherwise appear to have run out. The legislature is to adjourn two days after his scheduled execution so there is some urgency to deal with Wieland’s bill.
Lloyd Leo Anderson, the last man to be executed by lethal gas in Missouri, was in a position similar to that of Forrest. After Anderson’s appeals ran out, St. Louis Representative Jay Howard introduced a bill to end capital punishment. Governor Warren Hearnes stayed Anderson’s execution until the legislature decided the issue. When the legislature killed Howard’s bill, Hearnes lifted the stay and Anderson was gassed on January 26, 1965. But not before some angry last words: “Tell them I didn’t get a fair trial. Tell Hearnes to kiss my ___ ass. The same to the rest of you guys,” apparently referring to the large number of witnesses that crowded around the gas chamber, peering through windows to watch him die minutes later.
Missouri executed eighteen men between November, 2013 and September 1, 2015 when I watched Roderick Nunley die quietly for the kidnap, rape, and murder of a fifteen-year old Kansas City school girl a quarter century earlier. He was the eighty-sixth Missouri inmate executed by drugs. The first drug-induced execution was that of George Mercer January 6, 1989—in the gas chamber at the old penitentiary. No new execution facilities were available then.
There are twenty-seven men left under a death sentence in Missouri. No one has been sentenced to death in the last two years, mostly because of plea bargains—as we understand the situation.
Wieland’s bill says anyone sentenced to death by the time his bill would become law on August 28 would be re-sentenced to life without parole. At least twenty men who had been sentenced to death already have been re-sentenced to life without parole after further re-evaluation of their cases. Two men, Robert Driscoll and Joseph Amrine, have been released after their death sentences were overturned. One has been declared mentally incompetent to be executed although he’s still under a death penalty.
Your correspondent has watched more than twenty men die on a gurney from lethal injection. After several of those executions, relatives of the victims have spoken with reporters in a prison press room. No one has ever indicated any regret about the inmate’s ultimate fate. And in the last few times, they have expressed resentment at a system that has taken so long to put a killer away. More than once they have complained about the cruel and unusual punishment that the system has inflicted on the survivors of the victims. We wonder how the families of the victims of the twenty-seven men under a death sentence feel about Wieland’s bill.
Missouri has repealed the death penalty before. It did it in 1917 only to have the legislature reinstate it in 1919 when sponsors spoke of a marked increase in murders since the repeal. It was repealed again after Anderson’s 1965 gassing and a U. S. Supreme Court ruling in 1972 that gassing was cruel and unusual punishment. That let every inmate in America under a death sentence be re-sentenced to life. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that a new system of executions was not cruel and unusual punishment, leading Missouri to reinstitute the penalty in 1977. The legislature changed the law allowing executions by gas or lethal injection in 1988 with lethal injection the preferred means.
So now, it appears, conservatives seem to be deciding that liberals might have had a good idea after all. Is this just the start of a new cycle of thinking or has society forever changed on this issue? Is there nobody whose crime is so abhorrent that the forfeiture of life is the only just punishment? Is life in prison with no hope of ever getting out the worst possible penalty?
Consider part of the last statement of David Zink before his execution July 14, 2015:
“For those who remain on death row, understand that everyone is going to die. Statistically speaking, we have a much easier death than most, so I encourage you to embrace it and celebrate our true liberation before society figures it out and condemns us to life without parole and we too will die a lingering death.”