Missouri juries have rejected the death penalty in every case since 2013, but the state recently had two new death sentences within just four months of each other.
In both of these cases, two individual judges undermined the role of the juries.
In the entire year of 2017, the only new death sentence was for Marvin Rice. St. Charles County Judge Kelly Wayne Parker imposed a death sentence on Marvin Rice in October, despite the fact that the jury deadlocked, with 11 out of 12 jurors voting for life without the possibility of parole. Rice is a former Dent County deputy sheriff and state correctional officer. The case involved the shooting murder of his ex-girlfriend, Annette Durham, during a custody dispute over her son.
It was the first new death sentence in Missouri in four years.
On January 11, 2018, Craig Wood was sentenced to death by Greene County Judge Thomas Mountjoy for the death of ten-year-old Hailey Owens. Before the sentencing, Judge Mountjoy denied two motions filed by Wood’s defense attorneys — one asking for a new trial and one calling judge-imposed death sentences unconstitutional.
During the trial, Judge Mountjoy denied the victim’s mother Stacey Herman the opportunity to testify during the trial for the defense, as she had endorsed a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for Wood.
“I don’t want to go through the trial because I don’t want to relive the nightmare,” Herman said. “I’m never going to be over it, but just re-seeing it is going to make it 10 times worse.”
“I have been through enough,” she said. “I just want it done.”
Both the Rice and Wood cases will now move into the post-conviction phase, which will likely last over a decade.
In both of these cases, the judges’ decisions embody the problem of judicial override in Missouri and its unconstitutionality under the Sixth Amendment, which, as the U.S. Supreme Court found in Hurst v. Florida, “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”
In federal court and in all other states except Missouri and Indiana, a hung jury automatically means life in prison without the possibility of parole.
But in Missouri, a hung jury means the decision of life or death falls to the trial judge, undermining the role of the citizens who serve on juries in capital cases.
The relevant Missouri sentencing statute currently states that if a jury is unable to decide unanimously upon a punishment, the judge will assess the mitigating and aggravating evidence and then choose between life without parole or death. Most states with the death penalty follow the federal procedure of an automatic sentence of life without parole if a jury cannot reach a unanimous decision on appropriate punishment.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ring v. Arizona that Arizona’s capital sentencing statute was unconstitutional because it allowed a judge to find an aggravating circumstance necessary for imposition of the death penalty.
The Missouri Supreme Court has previously rejected judicially imposed death sentences, which erode the role of the jury in imposing the ultimate punishment. In a case similar to Rice and Wood’s, a jury in 1994 found Joseph Whitfield guilty of first-degree murder but could not settle on a punishment. 11 out of 12 voted for life imprisonment, but a judge sentenced Whitfield to death according to the four-step process of the Missouri statute at the time. In 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected Joseph Whitfield’s death sentence, finding that “[t]his process clearly violated the requirement of Ring that the jury rather than the judge determine the facts on which the death penalty is based.”
Missouri and Indiana are the only two states in which a judge can give a death sentence if a jury deadlocks. No state currently allows a judge to override a jury’s decision of a life sentence. Three states – Alabama, Delaware, and Florida – that once permitted the practice ended it in the past two years. Alabama repealed the judicial override portion of its death penalty statute in April 2017, although it is still possible for a non-unanimous jury to impose a death sentence. Research has found Alabama’s judicial override was employed to impose death sentences when a jury recommended life, rather than as a safeguard against unjust jury votes for death. The Delaware Supreme Court invalidated its death penalty statute and its relevant judicial override provisions in 2016.
In a 1988 dissent in Johnson v. Alabama, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall highlighted the dangers associated with judicial override: “It approaches the most literal sense of the word ‘arbitrary’ to put one to death in the face of a contrary jury determination where it is accepted that the jury had indeed responsibly carried out its task.”
Read more: Voices Lost in the Craig Wood Sentence.