JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, made headlines last week for his legislation that would repeal the death penalty in Missouri and now, he’s made history.
SB 816 has taken the next step to becoming law by moving onto the Senate floor after passing out of committee by a 4-2 vote in committee Tuesday after it was taken up again after the committee tabled the issue last week.
It is the first time a death penalty repeal bill has moved onto the floor of the Senate.
“One of my motivations [to run for office] was defending human life,” Wieland said. “As a pro-life person, I needed to be congruent with my conscience.”
While Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, the chair of the General Laws and Pensions Committee, was receptive to the idea, alluding to the racial disparity of death sentences, the other Republicans in the committee were not. Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, expressed his belief that some people were too dangerous to be left alive in prison, lest they do harm to their fellow inmates or prison guards.
“Someone executed will never murder again,” he commented.
Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Washington, believed that the death penalty was an effective and necessary deterrent to heinous crime and rejected testimony that the criminal justice system did not do its job.
“I don’t think we have a broken criminal justice system that’s the problem,” Schatz said. “It’s a morally bankrupt society.”
Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, an avid opponent of the death penalty, disagreed with Schatz’ take.
“I’ve fought this fight since I got elected,” he said. “If the death penalty was actually a deterrent, we wouldn’t be executing anyone, would we?”
Many witnesses testified in support of the bill, including the Missouri Catholic Conference, the NAACP and the Missouri Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Each had their own concerns with capital punishment from the fact that it may be racist institution, that they could be executing innocent people that may be exonerated by new evidence, or that they simply don’t trust the government to put people to death.
Jennifer Bukowsky, a Columbia-based attorney that has worked as a public defender, said that her experience with the Missouri criminal justice system made her want to “hit the pause button” on such punishments because mistakes could be made in sentencing people to death. If the state carried out on those mistakes, Bukowsky argues that “history will not treat us kindly.”
“Public defenders are inadequately funded and we can’t have enough confidence in the integrity of the results of our system to kill,” she said Tuesday. “Just because a person’s in prison doesn’t mean the case is solved.”