Nixon’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the politics of the death penalty, while Koster’s press secretary, Nanci Gonder, replied that he “has consistently supported the death penalty for the most serious murder convictions” and “one of the duties of the Attorney General is to ensure that legal punishments for violating Missouri’s criminal laws are carried out.”
Sean O’Brien, a professor at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, spent much of his career defending death-row inmates and recalled a case in which the judges at the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against the prosecution. In 2003, the court ruled in favor of a man who committed a murder before turning 18, a decision that was later ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court and became the basis for a nationwide ban on the execution of juveniles.
Missouri Supreme Court judges are appointed by the governor, and in 2013 Judge Mary Russell became the chief justice, overseeing the setting of execution dates.* Her court set up the one-a-month schedule in November of that year. When she stepped down in July this year, she told several reporters that the pace of executions picked up because they had been on hold during the lethal-injection drug shortage. Once the state had the drugs, she said, “there were a number of people who had been backlogged whose appeals were exhausted.”
“It’s required by law that the Supreme Court shall set execution dates,” she added. “It’s not that we agree or disagree with the death penalty.”
The Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has final say over death cases in Missouri, rarely stops executions, according to O’Brien, the law professor. “We’ve got a situation where all three”—the governor, attorney general, and supreme court—“are lickety-split gung-ho on this, and the federal courts aren’t stopping them.”
The Defense Bar
During a short phone interview last week, the Missouri capital-defense attorneys Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels used the words “crisis,” “disaster,” “horrific” and “overwhelming” as they described their “extremely small and embattled defense bar.” They see their cohort’s rushed work and missed deadlines and paltry resources as signs of broader problems with public defense in the state. Missouri was ranked 49th by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association in per-capita spending on indigent defense in 2009.
My colleague Ken Armstrong has chronicled the experience of one overburdened defense lawyer who dealt with the executions of two clients over two months at the end of 2013. In a March 2015 letter to the Missouri Supreme Court, members of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Assessment Team wrote, “The current pace of executions is preventing counsel for the condemned from performing competently.”
“You live in a perpetual state of tension,” Pilate said, “thinking your client could be next.”