With the recent run of executions in Missouri, it seemed apropos to review some of the arguments for and against the controversial subject of capital punishment. In two separate interviews, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh did just that.
Advocating for the death penalty was St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who sometimes seeks the death penalty in the cases he prosecutes. Advocating against the death penalty was Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. She has advocated for social justice and against capital punishment on the world stage for some thirty years, and is in the St. Louis region to speak at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
What’s your best argument for capital punishment?
“I think it’s an appropriate punishment, and that’s what we’re talking about here, punishment.... You have to keep in mind that these cases are not the standard murder case that you come across. No murder is good but these are particularly horrendous. They’re off the charts,” he said. “One case I tried was a fellow who was almost 6’ 6,’’ almost 300 pounds, and he literally butchered his girlfriend and her two-year-old baby – gutted them and cut the little girl’s head off.”
What constitutes “horrendous” and worthy of the death penalty?
“We’re not talking about cases where there is a barroom brawl or two guys arguing over who should have won the World Series and one shoots the other. Those cases are probably not even murder first degree, and certainly not death penalty cases.”
As a prosecutor in the state of Missouri, McCulloch follows the state statute to determine how to try a murder case.
“There have to be very specific statutory aggravating circumstances” in addition to being a murder in the first degree. “It’s a murder for hire, multiple murders, cases that are killing a witness, killing a police officer in the line of duty, doing it while there are other felonies being committed…Jeffrey Ferguson for example was a kidnapping, rape and murder, and that’s what set it apart from other even murder first degree cases.
Has your view on the death penalty evolved over the years?
“No, it hasn’t. I follow the same process and procedure. The good news is that we follow that process fewer times now because there are fewer murders. There are less than half the number of murders in this country today, certainly in St. Louis County and in Missouri, there are fewer than half than there were 20 years ago. An incredibly small number of the total murders are death penalty cases.”
Have there been cases where people have been executed who were later proven to be innocent?
“No. There are claims out there about that by anti-death penalty people but in the modern era of the death penalty, which is since about the mid-70s when it was reinstated and approved by the Supreme Court, there has not been.”
“There have been cases certainly where people were sentenced to death and in prison awaiting the appellate process who were later determined to be actually innocent. Those are few and far between, fortunately.”
What about the racial disparity of the people on death row?
“Most of the people under a sentence of death in this country are white. And most of the executions that are carried out, the defendants are white. The comparison they make is…an invalid comparison.”
“What they’re comparing is the number of blacks on death row under a sentence of death to the general population. And it’s out of proportion there. But the valid comparison is: compare the number of blacks under a sentence of death to the number of murders committed by black men. And it’s almost in exact proportion; it’s about 40 to 45 percent. The question they should be asking is: why are so many young black men committing murders and why are so many young black men the victim of murders?”
On where Missouri stands in the death penalty spectrum
“Missouri is one of the states that does a lot of killing. The Supreme Court gave out a guideline that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst. Nobody really knows what that means because when anyone that we love is killed that’s the worst of the worst,” said Sister Helen Prejean.
“I think what it’s pointing to, after 30 years of practice on this, is that the sign under the Supreme Court ‘equal justice under the law’ – people don’t know how to apply it. And it’s left up to individuals. It’s left up to prosecutors. And we see how it pans out. We know that 8 out of every 10 people executed or on death row are there for killing white people, where when we kill people of color there doesn’t seem to be the same outrage of pressing for ultimate justice.”
Prosecutors here seem to think it is fairly well spelled out as to what constitutes a heinous crime, and that they’re simply following the state guideline.
“Yeah, and look at the guidelines. I know them pretty well in most states. Cruel, heinous, that’s a bunch of adjectives … but if a black kid gets killed in the neighborhood, somehow we never feel it’s cruel or heinous. If a policeman gets killed, well that is the death penalty but not if a fireman gets killed. When we go to do our statutes, we have to delineate. Law always means you’re going to delineate. And then it’s up to the discretion of the prosecutor to decide.”
What about the biblical quote “an eye for an eye?”
“The selective Bible quoting has gone on forever. We did it for slavery; we did it for why women couldn’t vote,” said Sister Helen Prejean. “You’ve got to really know the Bible, the context in which it was written and what the spiritual message of it is. And it all moves towards compassion and life.”
“Look at the life of Jesus,” she said. “He was executed by the Romans and his last words were ‘forgive them because they don’t realize what they’re doing.’”
In your thirty years of advocating against the death penalty in the United States, why do you think things have remained fairly stable or static?
“I don’t think they are static. This year is the lowest support for the death penalty we’ve seen since 1957. It registers at 60 percent of the American public say they are for the death penalty…when people are offered the alternative of life without parole, it drops below 50 percent. In the last seven years we’ve had seven states that have ended the death penalty…..there has been a real shift not only in the number of states ending it, but the number of executions, the number of death penalties sought. It’s been a drastic drop in the practice of the death penalty, and I think we’re on our way for it to be on its way out.”
Aren’t we doing pretty well compared to countries that execute rape victims or people from opposite political parties?
“Until you look at 194 nations in the world, and see the vast majority no longer have the death penalty….of the top five countries that do executions, we’re in league with China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq – and what kind of company is that? I mean, what kind of standards of human rights do these countries have? We don’t need to do the death penalty anymore. We need to take it off the table where death is not in the arbitration of deciding about how to punish criminals.”
"Dead Man Walking - The Journey Continues"
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Southwestern Illinois College, 2500 Carlyle Ave., Belleville
2:00 p.m. in the theater
7:00 p.m. in the varsity gym
For more information and to RSVP, visit the SWIC website.