Missouri made the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2020 annual report, and not in a good way. Missouri was one of five states — along with Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas — that performed executions in 2020. Missouri also was the first state to execute someone during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The total number of executions in the U.S. this year is 17, as of this writing; though, at the rate President Donald Trump is going, that number could increase and even balloon before the new year. Seventeen is down from 22 in 2019, and this was the lowest number of executions performed in the U.S. since 1991. Despite Missouri’s execution of Walter Barton on May 19, this year also saw the lowest number of executions performed at the state level since 1983.
The Death Penalty Information Center does a great service in reminding us of the judicial killings done in our name. I can promise them and you that I will never add to these grim statistics. I campaigned for St. Louis County prosecuting attorney in 2018 with the explicit pledge that I will never seek the death penalty, and I renew that pledge today.
The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys cited deterrence as a key justification for the death penalty in a 2011 position paper. However, a 2001 U.S. Department of Justice report found that the average murder rate per 100,00 people in 1999 among death penalty states was 5.5 and the average murder rate among non-death penalty states was 3.6.
That sounds like anything but deterrence. A 1999 report in "Crime and Delinquency" on executions in Texas between 1984 and 1997 found that the murder rate was stable, with no evidence of a deterrent effect based on the number of executions.
The death penalty also is racially biased. This year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, almost half of the defendants executed were people of color and 76% of the executions were for the deaths of White victims. Black folks are more likely to be executed than White folks, and those (of any race) who kill White people are more likely to be executed than those (of any race) who kill Black people.
Anyone familiar with these facts who still advocates for the death penalty must implicitly accept that Black lives matter less than White lives. That is not a position that is consistent with the U.S. Constitution that prosecutors swear to uphold.
Finally, these cases are especially hard on the families of victims. Death-sentenced prisoners spend on average more than 10 years before execution or exoneration, and some prisoners spend more than 20 years on death row.
That is a terribly long time to wait for the closure delivered instantly with the sentence of life in prison without eligibility of parole. Also, given the gravity of the death sentence, these cases are more likely to be overturned on appeal than cases with a lesser sentence, forcing the state — and the grieving family — to start all over.
There is no stronger argument against the death penalty, however, than that our government sometimes kills innocent people in our name. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, five people were exonerated from death row in the U.S. in 2020, bringing the number of people exonerated from death row to 172 since 1973.
Those are 172 lives saved from unjust death at our hands. We will never know how many people killed by our government in our name were innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.
We have the power, as prosecutors, to end this ineffective, racially biased, hypocritical and inhumane practice. I do not believe in killing anyone nor asking anyone (including the state) to do so for me. I call upon all prosecutors in Missouri who currently consider the death penalty an option to stop. Premeditated murder, no matter who commits it, is wrong.
Wesley Bell is St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.