Group of Republican lawmakers raise concerns about Missouri death penalty

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State Rep. Chad Perkins speaking during House debate on March 1, 2023. Perkins is among a group of GOP lawmakers sponsoring legislation this year to abolish the death penalty. | Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications

A group of Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the death penalty and advocated for legislation that  would abolish it in Missouri during a Tuesday press conference at the state Capitol — characterizing it as an issue of restraining government overreach and protecting life. 

Rep. Chad Perkins, a Republican from Bowling Green, has filed legislation to abolish the death penalty and sentence those on death row instead to life in prison without parole.

“I think morally, I feel obligated,” Perkins said. “Anyone who says they’re pro-life should feel a little conflicted on this topic — because if you’re pro-life then I think you’ve got to look at it and say you’re that way from the beginning to the very end. And I don’t think that the government should have a monopoly on violence.”

Joining Perkins at Tuesday’s Capitol rally were Republican Reps. Tony Lovasco of O’Fallon, Jim Murphy of St. Louis and Travis Smith of Douglas.

Missouri was one of only five states to carry out death sentences last year, along with Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama. 

Missouri executed four people in 2023 and two in 2022. 

Between 1979 and 2021, the state executed 216 people, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Four people on death row in the state have been exonerated in Missouri since 1989.

“If we are truly at a 100% pro-life state, and being 100% pro-life,” Murphy said. “I believe that the death penalty is something that we really need to examine and put an end to because there’s just too many errors to be made and it’s just too big an error to make.”

Demetrius Minor, national manager for that national advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said Missouri could look to other states like Ohio, where there is a Republican trifecta and momentum against the death penalty, with legislative hearings over a bill to abolish it.

“The trend is beyond dispute,” Minor said, “An increasing number of conservative Republican state lawmakers nationwide are taking the lead because they believe in limited government, they demand fiscal responsibility and most importantly, they value life.”

  Demetrius Minor, national manager for the national advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty speaks at the Missouri Capitol on Jan. 9, 2024, alongside a group of Republican state legislators. | Clara Bates/Missouri Independent

Lovasco, who filed the bill in previous years seeking to abolish the death penalty in Missouri, said he’s seen increased momentum on the issue from his fellow Republicans. 

“We’re seeing, finally, willingness to have a discussion about this within the Republican Party,” he said, “both behind the scenes and now finally in public.” 

Last year, after Lovasco introduced an amendment during the budget process to defund the death penalty, he said, “almost double the number of people in the Republican Party voted in favor of defunding the death penalty than when it had happened previously, when roll call votes had been done in the past by Democrats.”

Perkins is hopeful the issue gains traction this session, but it hasn’t been referred to a House committee yet. 

“Oftentimes an idea comes about and starts to get a bit of traction, and it doesn’t quite make it across the finish line,” Perkins said. “But you can feel that there’s a direction that people are going and so maybe it’s an idea whose time hasn’t quite come about, but I think that the time is coming.” 

Another bill, filed by Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Arnold, would limit but not abolish the death penalty. Her legislation would repeal a state law allowing a judge to decide on a death sentence when a jury is not in unanimous agreement.

Most of the states with active death penalty laws  require unanimous jury decision. In only Indiana and Missouri, a judge is allowed to impose a death sentence when a jury decision can’t be reached on sentencing. 

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