In order to address the roles and responsibilities of the prosecutor (district attorney) in death sentencing, we must also address: criminal justice policy that is set at state and local levels, ways in which those in positions of power utilize these policies, racial disparities that persist in death sentence cases, ways of mitigating wrongful convictions, and what justice truly looks like for the communities and individuals that are most impacted.
Below are a series of slides and information that address just a sliver of the system of the prosecutors office, and their impact in Missouri.
Every year, thousands of individuals are affected by the choices of DA’s across Missouri.
Criminal justice policy is primarily set at the state and local levels. Local prosecutors exercise tremendous control over who will come into the justice system, what charges they will face, and the trajectory of their case. Prosecutors have the sole discretion to determine whether to sentence someone to life or death.
In 2019, the following counties were pursuing capital cases: Platte County, Jackson County, Henry County, Jasper County, Greene County, Ozark County, St. Louis City, Lacalade County, Miller County, Cole County, Warren County, St. Charles County, Wayne County, Ripley County. These counties represent the continuance of violence in the death penalty and it’s link primarily to racial terror violence that occurred across the state.
The starkest arbitrary factor regarding the death penalty is race. Studies have consistently found racial disparities at nearly every stage of the capital punishment process, from policing and charging practices, to jury selection, to jury verdicts, to which cases result in executions. Those patterns of discriminatory sentencing and executions — and particularly race-of-victim effects — were evident once again in 2019. (DPIC) Of the 21 individuals currently on death row in Missouri, 7 are Black and 14 are white. When looking at all pending capital cases and death row inmate demographics combined, 36% are people of color, and 64% are white.By themselves, African-Americans constitute 31% of Missouri pending capital cases and death row inmates. According to the U.S. Census data, 11.6% of Missouri’s population is African-American, and 82.8% is white.
In Missouri, racial disparities in capital cases are increasing even as fewer death sentences are imposed. Racial disparities, particularly relating to the race of victims, has become an increasingly important factor when assessing race and the death penalty. Homicides involving white victims were 7 times more likely to result in executions than those involving black victims. Based on a 2015 study, although 60% of murder victims in Missouri are black, 81% of people executed in Missouri had been convicted of killing white victims.Cases involving white female victims were 14 times more likely to result in execution than those involving black male victims. Missouri Death Row Racial Demographics, 2019: 31.8% are Black men, and 68.2% are white men. Missouri Death Row and Pending Capital Cases Racial Demographics, 2019: 30.4% are Black, 61% are white, 4.3% are Hispanic, and 4.3% are Native.
It is known that the death penalty is isolated to specific counties in each state, and this is true for Missouri. Within each of these counties, historic racial terror lynchings and violence is prevalent. St. Louis County – the home of Ferguson, Missouri – has carried out more executions than any other Missouri jurisdiction. Prosecutors throughout Missouri have a dire responsibility to address patterns of racial violence in sentencing. Historically, the majority of executions in Missouri have come from 3 of the 114 counties in Missouri: St. Louis County, St. Louis City, and Jackson County. Racial demographics of historic executions within the three highest use counties between 1989-2020 are: 12 white persons executed, 29 Black persons executed.
Close to 9,000 people in Missouri are currently being held in facilities with NO conviction. Prosecutors must examine all alternatives to cash bail, especially during a public health crisis when positive cases of COVID-19 inside Missouri prisons are increasing. Did you know that prosecutors can use their discretion to limit pre-trial detention and cash bail? Nationally, young Black men are about 50% more likely to be detained pretrial than white defendants, and Black and Brown defendants often receive bail amounts that are twice as high as bail set for white defendants, which many cannot afford to pay. Even in states that have implemented pretrial reform, racial disparities persist in pre-trial detention due to the racial bias of prosecutors. Cash bail and pre-trial detention also further systemic poverty and generational poverty. The decisions made by prosecutors to incarcerate the poor leaves lasting impacts on the defendants and their families, who ultimately suffer due to loss of a provider. Children who lose parents to the system of pre-trial detention are at risk of coming into contact with state custody, which often harms them. Prosecutors have a responsibility to decrease the prison population more than ever. It is essential that systems of pre-trial detention and cash bail be reformed in order to break the cycles of systemic poverty and systemic racism.
A Conviction Integrity Unit CIU is commonly a division in a prosecutors office that works to prevent, identify, and remedy false convictions. Missouri has three Conviction Integrity Units in St. Louis City (est. 2019), St. Louis County (est. 2019), and Jackson County (est. unknown). None have resulted in exonerations. CIUs should function independently of the established prosecutors office and be staffed by attorneys with first hand criminal defense knowledge in order to avoid simply being a CIU in name only. There are only 30 CIU’s in America that are responsible for exonerations. Another 32 CIU’s have recorded zero exonerations, including the 3 in Missouri.
CIU EXONERATIONS IN MISSOURI: In St. Louis County, Wesley Bell’s office has worked with the MO Supreme Court to exonerate Larry Callahan in June 2020. In St. Louis City, Kim Gardner is fighting to get Lamar Johnson a new trial but the court system and the Attorney General are halting the process for review. Unlike the other CIU’s in Missouri, in Jackson County, in order to have your conviction reviewed, one must sign a consent form waiving “all [my] procedural and constitutional safeguards and privileges” with regards to the innocence claim. Individuals who face wrongful conviction spend years trying to prove their innocence. As the organizations that are responsible for seeing to it that wrongful convictions are overturned, and that prevention of such occurrences is upheld, no one should have to waive their constitutional rights to gain freedom from an unjust system.
Prosecutor + Grand Jury: Since the late 90’s, one of the most common criticisms of grand juries is that they have become too dependent on #prosecutors . Instead of looking at the evidence presented to them, grand juries are simply issuing the indictment that the prosecutor asks them to (Beall, 1998). The prosecutor has sole authority in the Grand Jury process. They: hand select the jurors, decide what to investigate, and advise the jury on the law. The jury cannot return an indictment without the signature of the prosecutor. By opting for secret grand jury proceedings, prosecutors pass the buck, using grand juries as pawns for political cover especially in cases involving police shootings and other forms of extrajudicial execution.
The criminal justice system perpetuates violence in all forms. It is racist, it attacks the poor, it often times doesn’t provide enough support to victims, and has killed innocent people. Prosecutors wield tremendous power within this system, and must be held accountable. To end mass incarceration and police violence, and the impacts they have on our communities, we must be clear about what we want from those who wield the utmost authority. Local communities build power by organizing around demands which are put forward by those most impacted in the criminal legal system. Communities across Missouri have made it clear that DA’s need to be more transparent and held accountable, implement successful Conviction Review Units, eliminate the death penalty, end police violence, and more.