Pope Calls for a Moratorium on Death Penalty During the Jubilee Year

While praying with visitors in St. Peter’s Square on Feb. 21, Pope Francis made a passionate plea for a moratorium on executions during the Year of Mercy.  The Holy Father reminded listeners that “Thou shalt not kill” (the fifth commandment) applies not only to the innocent but to the guilty as well.

Francis appealed to world leaders to reach an international consensus to end the death penalty.  He also proposed to Catholic government leaders to “make a courageous and exemplary gesture by seeking a moratorium on executions during this Holy Year of Mercy.”  The Year of Mercy began on Dec. 8, 2015, and will close on Nov. 20, 2016.

Pope Francis’ appeal for mercy also extended to those imprisoned.  “All Christians and people of good will are called today to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also to improve the conditions of life in prison, in the respect of human dignity of people deprived of freedom,” Francis told the crowd.

Senate Debates Merits of Death Penalty

After years of silence on the issue, the Missouri Senate recently spent several hours debating whether to repeal the death penalty in Missouri. The debate brought out strong emotions on both sides, while helping shed some light on this complex issue.

Sponsored by Sen. Paul Wieland (R- Emperial), SB 816 would eliminate a death sentence as an option for first degree murder. Anyone who had previously received a death sentence would have their sentence changed to life without parole.

In bringing SB 816 up for discussion, Sen. Wieland said he was moved to sponsor the bill because he was a devout Catholic who felt he needed to be consistent in his pro-life beliefs to protect all human life, even those guilty of murder. Wieland also said that as a fiscal conservative, he was concerned about the cost of the death penalty. He also raised concern about executing an innocent person.

“All it would take is one mistake,” Wieland told the Senators. ” We’re not operating it at a zero percent margin of error”.

Sen. Gina Walsh (D-St. Louis) agreed, “Mistakes are made.”  She  admitted that this is a very emotional issue. Even though a family friend was murdered, she still opposes the death penalty because she too is guided by her Catholic faith on the issue.   “I don’t think I could sit on a jury and give a death sentence.”

In defending the death penalty, Sen. Mike Parson (R-Boliver) noted that after being in law enforcement for over 20 years, he has seen brutal crimes and the devastation it brings to the families.  “What we are really talking about is killers and there’s a part of it that is premeditated.”

Several senators also expressed torn feelings about the death penalty.

In the end Sen. Wieland laid his bill over without a vote. But the debate, as one Senator noted was “refreshing”.  Unless people on both sides of the issue can begin a conversation, no progress will be made.  Senator Wieland was grateful for the Senate discussion and is convinced that the issue is moving in the right direction. 

Director of DOC Confronted About Executioners’ Payments

This week George Lombardi, Director of the Department of Corrections (DOC), faced tough questions before the Appropriations Committee on Public Safety and Corrections regarding payments made to individuals who assist with executions.  Lombardi revealed that the DOC does not give 1099 tax forms to those employees and there is no Department policy or procedure to ensure that these individuals report their earnings to the IRS. 

It is estimated that since 2013, over $284,000 in cash has been hand delivered in envelopes by DOC officials to those who assist with executions.  The largest amount for each execution, approximately $7,000, goes to the drug supplier. Individual team members receive in the range of $2,000-$3,000 for each execution.

Lombardi defended the DOC’s action by stating that if the identities of the participants were not kept secret, the death penalty would end in Missouri because no one would participate in the process. Lombardi noted that the DOC has not issued 1099s to execution team members since the administration of Governor John Ashcroft.

Lombardi was also challenged on why the DOC budget did not line item the expenses for executions, but used money from other budget categories.

Two Pro-Life Bills on Abortion and the Death Penalty Passed By Senate Committees

SB 816, which would repeal the death penalty in Missouri, and SB 644, which addresses fetal tissue donations in Missouri and inspections of abortion clinics, both received a “Do Pass” vote this week from their respective committees. The MCC is working for passage of both bills. 

Those in favor of the bills testified about the importance of all lives, “from womb to tomb.”

The Senate Committee on Seniors, Families & Children heard SB 644, sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder (R-St. Charles). SB 644 would prohibit fetal tissue from an abortion from being donated for research and would require all fetal remains obtained from an abortion to be submitted for a pathological examination and disposal. Only sample tissue needed for law enforcement purposes and/or to diagnose suspected diseases could be retained. 

SB 644 would also require all abortion clinics in Missouri to be inspected once a year, and that any abortionist have admitting and surgical privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic.

In other committee action the Senate General Laws and Pensions Committee voted “Do Pass” SB 816, sponsored by Sen. Paul Wieland (R-Imperial), which would repeal the death penalty in Missouri. The Missouri Catholic Conference’s General Counsel Tyler McClay testified in support of the bill when it was first heard last week.

In introducing his bill to the committee, Sen. Wieland said that he was motivated to sponsor the bill because of his pro-life beliefs. “For me to be consistent with my pro-life beliefs, I need to not only protect the innocent unborn, but also those guilty of serious crime,” Wieland noted. 

Both pro-life bills SB 816 and SB 644 can now move to the full Senate for further consideration. You can read the full MCC press release here. 

Senate Committee Hears Bill to End the Death Penalty

The Senate General Laws and Pensions Committee heard a bill on Tuesday, Jan. 19 that would end the death penalty in Missouri.

Sponsored by Sen. Paul Wieland (R-Imperial) SB 816 would make life without parole the only sentencing option for first degree murder. Inmates currently living under a death sentence would have their sentences changed to life without parole.

In introducing his bill to the committee, Sen. Wieland said that he was motivated to sponsor the bill because of his pro-life beliefs. “For me to be consistent with my pro-life beliefs, I need to not only protect the innocent unborn, but also those guilty of serious crime,” Wieland noted.

Several witnesses testified, including MCC’s General Counsel Tyler McClay.

“Catholic teaching opposes the use of the death penalty,” McClay noted. “This ultimate punishment promotes violence as a solution to society’s problems.”

McClay went on to discuss some of the concerns found in the 18 cases of individuals who have been executed in Missouri over the last few years. These concerns include arbitrariness of the death penalty, racial disparity in cases and lack of adequate representation at trial.

The hearing will continue on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

Read MCC’s press release here.

General Assembly Convenes for 2016 Session

Wednesday the Missouri General Assembly convened for its 2016 session. House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Popular Bluff) set out some legislative priorities in an address to the Missouri House. See this St. Louis Post-Dispatch article for more on Richardson’s address. The new President Pro Tem of the Senate, Ron Richard (R-Joplin), skipped the customary opening speech and just told Senators to get to work.

Ethics reform will be a top priority for legislators. Numerous bills and proposed constitutional amendments have been introduced. Some of the ideas being proposed include: banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators; limiting campaign contributions and requiring a “cooling off” period before a legislator leaving office can become a lobbyist.

House Speaker Richardson is indicating he is not keen on spending large chunks of time on Right to Work. Last year the legislature passed a Right to Work bill but Governor Nixon vetoed it. The legislature failed to override the veto. See this St. Louis Post Dispatch article for more.

In the wake of the videos last summer showing officials of Planned Parenthood talking about the trade in fetal body parts, legislators are determined to prevent such practices in Missouri. Senator Bob Onder (R-St. Louis) has filed SB 644. (See “Pro-life Bill Addressing Planned Parenthood Videos Set For Hearing” article for more details.) The Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) will be working to pass pro-life bills like Senator Onder’s legislation.

Over the past several years, Missouri has refused to expand Medicaid despite the offer by the federal government to cover all of the costs. The expansion would enable more of the working poor to gain health coverage. The MCC supports both reform and expansion of Medicaid, but action in 2016 seems unlikely.

Both Republicans and Democrats appear interested in reforming the criminal justice system, including measures that would help ex-felons start new lives after serving their time in prison. (See “Criminal Justice Reform is in Vogue” for more details.)

In addition to considering hundreds of bills on a wide variety of topics, legislators must pass a state budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins July 1. This year the MCC will seek continued funding for services that help women choose life over abortion and assistance for refugees who have fled persecution in other parts of the globe.

These are just a few of the issues the MCC expects to surface in 2016. But each year there are surprises – issues that emerge that were not on anyone’s radar screen at the beginning of the year. Check the MCC Update each week for the latest developments

Death Penalty Legislation Filed

With Missouri being one of the top states that carried out executions in 2015, the MCC will be supporting legislation that ends or limits the use of the death penalty.  Legislation filed so far includes SB 816 (Sen. Wieland) that repeals the death penalty, SB 652 (Sen. Keaveny) HB 1824 (Rep. McGaugh) that requires the State Auditor to make a one-time report on the costs of administrating the death penalty and SB 758 (Sen. Chappell-Nadal) that would require the MO Supreme Court to consider whether race was a significant factor in the decision to seek the death penalty against the defendant.

The MCC is encouraged by the fact that executions and new death sentences nationally are at historic lows.  This trend away from the death penalty could help advance legislation to end this brutal practice in our state.

Photo courtesy of the Missouri Bar Association

Governor Commutes Death Sentence – Have You Sent Your Thank You Note Yet?

Last Friday afternoon, Governor Nixon commuted the death sentence of Kimber Edwards to life in prison without parole. Edwards  was scheduled to be executed on Oct. 6th.  Governor Nixon did not explain his decision, other than to say it came after a “thorough review of the facts” and was “not taken lightly.” He did note that he believed the evidence did support the jury’s decision to convict Edwards of first-degree murder.

Edwards’ lawyers had raised claims that their client was wrongly convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife based on the fact that the admitted killer recanted his earlier statement and now claimed Edwards was innocent of any involvement in the crime. The lawyers also brought evidence that the incriminating statements Edwards made before trial were part of a coerced confession.

The MCC is urging its network members to send a note of appreciation to the Governor by calling him at 573-751-3222 or emailing him.  Thank the governor for showing mercy in this case. Edwards’ commutation is only the second time Jay Nixon has stopped an execution while serving as governor.

Governor Nixon’s commutation came on the heels of Pope Francis historic address to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 24th in which he advocated for an end to the death penalty worldwide.


Oct. 6 Execution Pending for Man Likely Wrongly Convicted — Please Contact Governor Nixon to Stop the Execution

Despite a lack of physical evidence, the State is planning on executing Kimber Edwards on Oct. 6 for the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife Kimberly Cantrell in 2000.

From the beginning Orthell Wilson admitted to killing Cantrell (his secret girlfriend), but pointed the finger at Edwards as the mastermind of the crime. In a 2015 affidavit Wilson admits that he lied, that he acted alone and that Edwards is totally innocent of the crime, thus undermining the State’s strongest evidence implicating Edwards.  In exchange for his cooperation at the time of the crime, Wilson received a life without parole sentence while Edwards received death.  The only other evidence against Edwards, who has autism, was incriminating statements he made to police after an intense nine hour interrogation in which police threatened his family if he did not confess.

Regardless of how one feels about the death penalty, there is no justification for executing someone where reasonable doubt exist of their guilt. This case deserves further scrutiny! !

Contact Governor Nixon today at 573-751-3222 or send an email to let him know that this case is tainted with false testimony and a coerced confession. Urge him to halt this execution and convene a board of inquiry to further examine the case.

High Court Approves Drug Used in Executions

In one of its last decisions before the end of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 this week to allow Oklahoma to use the sedative midazolam in its executions. Plaintiffs in the case argued that the drug violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because it did not work as intended in putting people into a coma-like sleep.

Last year Oklahoma, Arizona and Ohio all had problems with executions in which midazolam was used. Missouri does not use midazolam as part of its execution protocol, but it can be administered earlier in the day if the inmate requests a sedative.

In writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that the concerns with midazolam were “speculative” and dismissed the problems some states had with the execution drug. In his separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the time had come for the court to debate whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.

While death penalty foes were disappointed in the recent ruling, Justice Breyer’s dissent gives hope for a future challenge to the constitutionality of the entire death penalty system in this country.


Posted: July 2, 2015