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ABA study says death penalty too broadly pursued in Mo.

(via Wikimedia Commons/Noahudlis)

It may be easier to be sentenced to death in Missouri than in other states, according to a study released today and sponsored by the American Bar Association.

It finds that aggravating circumstances used by prosecutors are so broadly defined that virtually any homicide case in Missouri can qualify for the death penalty.  University of Missouri -- Columbia Law Professor Paul Litton is on the panel that conducted the study.  He says the state’s wide latitude on capital punishment goes against the recommendations of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The circumstances that can make a case death-eligible must be narrowly defined to insure that the death penalty is only applicable to the worst offenders and to prevent juries from inconsistently imposing death sentences," Litton said.

St. Louis attorney Douglas Copeland, another panel member, wants Missouri lawmakers to adopt a more narrow definition for applying capital punishment.

“There must be a review of the aggravating circumstances in the death penalty statute, to insure that only the most egregious murders are eligible for the death penalty," Copeland said.

Other recommendations include more training for law officers who handle eyewitnesses in murder cases, and preservation of DNA evidence for as long as a defendant or convict is incarcerated.  The panel also wants Missouri to ban the death penalty for the severely mentally ill, increase pay for public defenders who handle death penalty cases, and increase funding for state crime labs.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (MAPA) has issued a statement on the study.  The group says they're pleased that the ABA did not recommend a moratorium on the death penalty, but disagree with one of the study's conclusions that public defenders are "overworked and underfunded."

The full study can be found here.


Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.

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