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DEAD-Locked: Evaluating Judge-Imposed Death Sentences: Under Missouri's Death Penalty Statute

In DEAD-Locked: Evaluating Judge-Imposed Death Sentences: Under Missouri's Death Penalty Statute (Winter 2020), by Michael J. Essma, an overview of the unconstitutional practice of judicial override are presented.

Read the full law review HERE .

No Missouri jury has imposed a death sentence since 2013. Since that time five individuals have been sentenced to death by judges in the state, two convictions have been overturned and commuted, and three individuals remain living under death sentences. The practice of judge-imposed death sentences has long plagued capital cases in Missouri, affecting each individual who faces a death sentence.

The “deadlock” provision of Missouri’s death penalty scheme allows a judge to make the ultimate determination of life or death when the jury cannot reach a unanimous decision.

Only Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to impose a death sentence after the jury deadlocks on whether to sentence a defendant to death.

These two states authorize judge imposed death sentences because of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that allows judges to only make sentencing determinations.11 These cases emanate from the Sixth Amendment protection of a jury trial for criminal defendants.12 Still, Eighth Amendment restrictions on implementation of the death penalty muddy the distinction between sentencing and findings of fact required to be made by a jury under the Sixth Amendment. Since the consequences of the death penalty are the highest possible, people should be confident that the Missouri death penalty scheme provides defendants their constitutional protections.

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has long brought forward the issue of non-unanimous jury sentencing and judge-imposed death sentences. To resolve the matter, we continue to follow legislation, educate legislators about the unconstitutionality of this practice, and work toward measures that would make judge-imposed death sentences obsolete.

Given what is at stake in death penalty cases, it is imperative that there be no doubt all constitutional protections are met. An easy way to assure this is to require a jury to sentence a defendant to death and leave open no avenue for a judge to impose a death sentence on his or her own.

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