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Cody Bivins-Starr: Missouri should abolish the death penalty

In 2021, Virginia abolished the death penalty, becoming the first southern state to do so. Key factors in its abolition were the recognition of the racialized history of the death penalty, the testimony of former executioners and victims such as Jerry Givens, Rachel Sutphin (daughter of a slain sheriff’s deputy) and the increasing immensity of costs associated with death sentences.

In 2021, a bipartisan chorus, including 20 conservative leaders, urged the Virginia General Assembly to end capital punishment.

Missouri, which since 1976 has executed 91 people, should follow suit. There are three major reasons why: • First, the death penalty disproportionately targets Black and poor people. All of the 19 individuals sentenced to death in Missouri are poor and are represented by federal or state public defenders. Additionally, out of the 19 individuals on death row in Missouri, six are Black and twelve are white. At first glance this may seem inconsequential, however, Black people only make up 11.6% of Missouri’s population, compared to the approximately 82.8% who are white. This reflects known patterns in research, which shows that homicides involving white victims are seven times more likely to result in an execution than Black victims. Given the historical use of both extrajudicial and judicial killings of Black people and poor whites, Missouri should rectify this continued historical grievance and take a stand for economic and racial justice.

• Second, though Missouri has yet to commission a cost report, the death penalty is an immensely costly sentence (more expensive than a life-without-parole sentence). In Arizona, the Department of Corrections paid $1.5 million for execution drugs alone, all while facing budget issues. These high costs are associated with execution itself, legal costs, pretrial costs, trials, incarceration and much more. Budgets are moral documents, and at the end of the day can Missouri justify high costs in taxpayer support in order to sanction the death of a person?

• Last, the death penalty represents an inconsistent moral practice in Missouri. In 2019, Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill that criminalized abortion after eight weeks, with the only exception being for medical emergencies. Parson, among others, desires to make Missouri “the most pro-life state in the country.” It is incongruent to make such claims while pursuing death sentences for some of the most vulnerable in our state, like Carman Deck who is scheduled to be executed on May 3. Deck is someone who was constantly failed by the state. He was in and out of several foster homes while his biological family members continually abused him.

He was the oldest of several children and was often left alone for days to care for them with no food. Later in life he suffered enormous abuse while incarcerated in the Missouri Department of Corrections, so much that “he was never the same,” according to his sister. When the Missouri Supreme Court issued his execution warrant, Deck had been incarcerated for over 24 years. He had been living in the honor dorm in Potosi. He is not the same man the prosecutors paint him to be. Deck is deserving of mercy.

Many of Missouri’s representatives claim to be Christian. As a Christian myself, I cannot see the reliance on death-dealing sentences toward the poor and those most marginalized in society as harmonious with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, who was himself executed by the state.

If we rely upon death to do “good,” can we claim to be people of life? Missouri should show mercy towards Carman Deck and abolish the death penalty.

Cody Bivins-Starr is a Springfield-area native and current PhD student in Theological Ethics at University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is the former graduate fellow for the Center for Applied Christian Ethics.

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