Missouri Elections
11:12 pm
Sun June 1, 2014

Koster's Stance On Death Penalty May Boost Democrats' Election Chances

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster says that his speech last Thursday to fellow lawyers, where he laid out the challenges facing Missouri and other states with the death penalty, had everything to do with policy, not politics.

Chris Koster
Chris Koster
Credit (Joseph Leahy/St. Louis Public Radio)

“The purpose of the speech was to continue a serious public policy discussion regarding one aspect of perhaps the most profound act conducted by state government,”  Koster wrote in a statement Friday to St. Louis Public Radio.

Among other things, Koster – a Democrat only since 2007 – proposed that the state set up its own state-run laboratory to create the needed execution drugs, which have become difficult to obtain.

Koster said that the expanding secrecy surrounding Missouri’s lethal injection methods should "concern all of us deeply.” A state-run lab, he seemed to believe, would make the process more transparent.

But others see a political context, whether Koster intended it or not.

Missouri Republican Party executive director Matt Wills tweeted on Friday:  “If @Koster4Missouri really thinks creating a lab for an execution drug is the right thing to do, why wait until now to say it?”

Wills said in an interview that if Koster were truly serious, he could have laid out his proposals while the General Assembly was still in session because legislators would have to approve any state spending to set up a special lab to produce drugs for an execution.

“Give (legislators) something in the time when they can act,’’ Wills said. “It’s just very odd timing.”

Even so, none of Koster’s potential Republican rivals – including announced candidate Catherine Hanaway, the former Missouri House speaker and a former U.S. attorney – has offered any observations about his death-penalty proposals.

And some Democrats say privately that Koster's timing is superb. The focus on his death penalty views comes as the state Democratic Party prepares for its largest annual event -- the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner June 7 in St. Louis.

Koster -- who has taken on a stronger role in behind-the-scenes Democratic operations in Missouri -- is expected to be among the speakers.

Democrats' support of death penalty seen as a political plus

Aside from his lab proposal, attention also is being directed at the passage in Koster’s speech in which he points out that Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat who spent 16 years as attorney general, “has been directly involved in 65 executions.”

"He has overseen more than half of all executions in Missouri since the state took responsibility for administering the death penalty from county sheriffs in 1937,” Koster said. “Such a burden on a single individual is without precedent in Missouri’s history, and is nearly unprecedented nationally."

Koster’s comments likely did the governor – and fellow Missouri Democrats -- a political favor, said George Connor, head of the political science department at Missouri State University.

“He’s not throwing Nixon under the bus,’’ Connor emphasized. The professor said that the governor – who has long emphasized his law-and-order credential --  is no doubt proud “in executing more people than anybody else" in Missouri history.

Koster, who has less name recognition, “wants to portray himself in that same fashion,’’ Connor continued. “This is good politics for a Democrat running for statewide office.”

Terry Jones, a veteran political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, went even further. "The position he's taken has all positive political attributes and no negatives," Jones said.

What Koster has done, Jones explained, was express his support for the death penalty while acknowledging problems with how it has been administered -- and offering some solutions.

Both professors did acknowledge that Koster now faces the challenge of developing a policy proposal on his death penalty stance to present to the General Assembly when it reconvenes next year.

But on the political level, they contend that Koster faces no risk.

Promoting the role of Missouri Democrats in implementing the death penalty, Jones implied, may help the party and its candidates avoid the too-liberal, anti-gun image that conservative critics and the GOP often attempt to portray.

“To win statewide in Missouri, you have to support the death penalty,’’ Connor said, even with the state’s large Catholic population, notably in the St. Louis area. The Catholic Church officially opposes the death penalty although polls indicate that many rank-and-file Catholics hold different views.

Even the news of the botched execution in Oklahoma is unlikely to upset many religious conservative Missouri voters, Connor maintained. He pointed to the view among some that any suffering by a convicted murderer might be deemed acceptable in light of the suffering imposed on their innocent murder victims.

With that backdrop, Connor said that Koster’s speech – regardless of the nuances – makes clear his support for executions and his desire to address any problems so that the program can continue.

And that position will have political benefits, Connor said. “For Attorney General Koster, as a former Republican, this is certainly building his bona fides with Missouri voters. Missouri voters will be able to attach the pro-death penalty idea with the name ‘Koster.’ "