Senate bill seeks to investigate death penalty costs


By Collin Reischman

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo — Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis, is opposed to the dearth penalty.

Sen. Josephy Keaveny, D-St. Louis

Sen. Josephy Keaveny, D-St. Louis

While this is not a new position for most Democrats, Keaveny has an interesting approach to capital punishment. He is not trying to abolish it, he is simply asking how much it costs.

Keaveny filed Senate Bill 61 earlier this year, which would direct the State Auditor to study 30 randomly-selected murder cases in order to compare costs.

The audit would compare 10 murder cases in which the death penalty was sought and obtained, 10 in which the death penalty was sought but not obtained, and 10 cases in which the sentence of life without parole was sought and obtained.

The purpose would be to find out just what the death penalty costs Missouri taxpayers and whether there are cheaper alternatives, Keaveny said.

Keaveny’s office told The Missouri Times the bill had the support of state Auditor Thomas Schweich, and that the his office worked closely with Keaveny’s staff to write the bill.

Stacey Morse, Keaveny’s chief of staff, said he filed similar legislation last year, but had since worked with Schweich’s office to reduce the cost of the study further in order to make it more appealing to the conservative members of the chamber.

Morse said the bill should appeal to Keaveny’s Republican colleagues because its stated goal is to find the cheapest avenue for the court system in pursuing punishments for capital murder cases.

Keaveny also has a moral objection to capital punishment, though. In a perfect world, he said, Missouri would not execute anyone. But for now, he said he will settle for fact finding.

“That’s the underlying reason I filed the bill, I have an objection to capital punishment,” Keaveny said. “If I can come up with an unbiased justification for getting rid of it, something based on concrete fact instead of just emotion; there will be another bill to abolish it. But before I get there, I need to lay a foundation that I can convince people that are attached to it that this costs us a lot of money, is it really in the best interest of our state?”

An amendment offered by Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, would stipulate that the funds for the audit must come from a private party, not from general revenue. Keaveny was aware the amendment would be offered, which Parson attached in order to move the bill onto the floor and allow Keaveny time for floor debate. However, Keaveny does not support the bill with the attached amendment.

“I’ve spoken against the amendment,” Keaveny said. “Number one, it the auditor’s job to do reports about where we spend state funds. Why do we go to a private party to ask them to fund the auditor to give us a report of how the funds are spent?”

Keaveny said he selected the office of the auditor to lead the study because he thought it would give the findings more credibility, and said most non-profit organizations in favor of his legislation cannot afford to raise the money to fund the study. Allowing a private entity and not general revenue to fund the study could also raise questions about the objective nature of the findings, he added.

Keaveny’s bill dealing with the death penalty is not a stand-alone piece of legislation. He is also looking to adopt new requirements for law enforcement in evidence-gathering procedures. The bill, SB162, would require all interrogations to be recorded, expand the opportunities for DNA testing, and create stronger controls on the gathering and storing of biological evidence.

“[SB]61 was filed first. It was an attempt to take a serious look at the death penalty in the state,” Keaveny said. “Then the [American Bar Assocation] came out with their study last year. That was the impetus for 162, they happen to overlap, the brunt of the study was about the death penalty, the weaknesses and inefficiency.”

Unfortunately for Keaveny, SB61 is unlikely to move on the floor, as he does not support the current version of the bill as amended. He reiterated that he will continue to work on SB162 and that he will continue his efforts to audit the death penalty.

To contact Collin Reischman, email, or via Twitter at @Collin_MOTimes.