by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – It’s the ultimate price to pay for a crime: having your life extinguished by Missouri’s death chamber.
While the controversy continues over the contents of Missouri’s lethal injection drugs and the source that provides it, the longer-running controversy heats up once again in the Show Me State: should the state government have the power to take a life in the first place?
Last week, Herbert Smulls was put to death as the sentence for a 1991 Chesterfield murder.
It was the third execution in Missouri since November. Smulls was convicted of planning the murder as part of a jewelry store robbery. Prosecutors say he made an appointment with the store owner under the guise of looking at jewelry to buy, then shot the man to death in the store. Smulls was convicted in 1993.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office prosecuted that case. He supports the continued use of the death penalty but says it should only be pursued in rare cases.
State law limits which crimes are eligible for capital punishment consideration. Even when the crime meets the criteria, it’s still up to the prosecutor to decide whether or not to ask for it as punishment.
Kay Parish is with Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which is pushing for an end to the use of capital punishment in all cases in the state.
“It’s not necessary in order to protect society. We can lock people away for the rest of their lives. We don’t need it. It doesn’t serve any function in society.
While a common argument for the death penalty is that it deters crime, McCulloch doesn’t think that should be part of the discussion. To him, it’s not a policy issue, it is a crime and punishment matter.
“I can’t sit here and tell you that the death penalty is a deterrent. It may or may not be, there are studies that go both ways. But that’s not a good reason to seek death in a case – in order to deter somebody else. It’s for punishment in that particular case.”
McCulloch goes on to say that the death penalty should be used only for punishment and, in his view, should not be put on the table unless the prosecution has already decided to follow through and ask for it.
“I think it is absolutely wrong to use the death penalty as a bargaining chip…that’s just flat-out wrong.”
Parish doesn’t believe justice is served at any time by putting a convict to death.
In a new “Missouri Viewpoints”, McCulloch says the fact that the law limits the use of the death penalty and because of the extensive legal steps required to make it an option, only those guilty of the worst crimes risk being executed.
No one, he agrees, wants to see an innocent person convicted at all, much less put on death row. Cases like the Smulls conviction are the rare situations where it should be used, McCulloch says. According to McCulloch, there was no question who committed the crime, only what the punishment should be.
Parish points out that human error and resulting judicial errors are among the reasons her organization is against the death penalty.
“We have to be real about things. We are in an imperfect system.”
Parish points to the recent case of Reginald Griffith, who was on Missouri’s death row at one point. Griffith was exonerated after being convicted of stabbing a fellow inmate to death in 1983. Griffith was set free last year.
Parish says sentencing the worst offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole is justice, while McCulloch says waiting decades – as was the case with Herbert Smulls – for the final sentence to be carried out is too long to wait for justice.
On the web:
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch: http://www.stlouiscopa.com/
Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty: www.MADPMO.org