Life and death in the State Senate

We do a lot of stories about issues before the legislature that are about important issues such as tax credits, industrial development, whether voters should have to show pictures of themselves to election clerks, whether motorcyclists should wear helmets, what to do to stop people from making meth, whether neighbors should be able to sue stinky pig farms and other issues that touch on the lives of some or many Missourians.  On rare occasions, we cover debates that focus on the two most basic elements of our existence: life and death.

The senate has started debating death.

Senator Joseph Keaveny’s bill asks the state auditor to study thirty murder cases to determine the comparitive costs of executions and life in prison with no parole.  The question before the senate before it adjourned Monday evening was who should pay for that study—the state or some outside organization.

The debate underlines the multiple social and political facets of the death penalty and cannot help but go beyond economic issues, which Keaveny insists his bill is about, to human feelings about whether some people deserve to forfeit their lives for taking the lives of others.

There is a currency of thought that social issues, or at least SOME social issues, cannot be fairly argued by those who have no personal experience on which to base their attitudes.  I have heard women legislators, for instance, denounce the men who think they can dictate reproductive rights laws.  But legislators are forever passing laws regulating human behavior about which they have no personal involvement.  It is unlikely that many, or any, of the 34 members of the State Senate have watched an execution.

This reporter has watched death penalty debates that go back to the state’s reinstatement of executions many years ago.  Not only the reinstitution of the penalty but the debates about the method by which the state would kill a killer. Or not.

This reporter has also watched 16 executions. He has talked with relatives of the victims. He has talked to relatives of the executed inmates. He has talked with relatives of inmates whose last-minute reprieves have bought them years more of prison life.   He has heard death penalty opponents say that executions don’t really bring relief to the relatives of the victims—although those relatives all have said they have been glad to long wait was finally over.

Several years ago, this reporter spent two nights in a Bonne Terre motel while one man’s execution bounced from judge to judge, court to court, and the execution was on, then off, then probably back on, then off, and maybe on again before finally the state abandoned the process.

You see, executions are traditionally carried out at 12:01 a.m. on the day set by the Missouri Supreme Court.  An odd time, you might think.  But the court only sets the date for an execution, not a time.  If a stay of execution is issued at, say, 11 p.m., the state has time to get it overturned before 12:01.  But if it does not, the state has the entire 24-hour day to appeal stays, to get new rulings, and for the inmate’s lawyers to appeal or file new motions.  In the cae of the inmate at Bonne Terre, the state did not abandon plans to hold the execution until about 8 p.m. after a U.S Supreme Court judge had issued a stay that clearly would take more time to deal with.

Several minutes after everything was shut down at the prison, the prisoner was returned to his cell, and reporters and other witnesses had left the penitentiary, a reporter for the Associated Press and I sat down with the inmate’s relieved family at the motel.   They told us they were glad that they could continue driving from Kansas City to Potosi (where death penalty inmates are kept until a few days before their execution date when they are moved to the Bonne Terre prison) to visit him.  They knew what he had done but he remained their son, brother, cousin, nephew, and they didn’t want him to die.

That was a little more than seven years ago.  Michael Taylor is still alive.  His case remains on appeal.  The state’s method of execution remains under challenge.

No doubt there were some who listened to the interview with Taylor’s family posted on our web page who thought, “His family already has had sixteen years more with him than the family of the victim had with her.”    Taylor and another man kidnapped a 15-year old Kansas City girl in 1989, raped her and murdered her.  She would be approaching 40 now, perhaps with her own family.  Her family, his family, continue to wait—with far different perspectives on the death penalty.

So the senate is debating who will pay for a state Auditor’s study of the relative costs of life versus death.  Anti-death penalty advocates say executions cost more than housing a person in prison for life without parole.  Pro-death penalty advocates say the economics of the death penalty should not be the focus of the issue; justice is the issue.

Some Senators already have argued that the death penalty is a deterrent, a statement that anti-death penalty advocates question.   Memory recalls  that when John Ashcroft was Governor and was asked if he thought the death penalty was a deterrent, he responded that it certainly deterred the executed inmate from committing another murder.

But another memory remains that goes back several years before that comment.   It happened during a legislative committee hearing on the death penalty when a Kansas City Star reporter named J. J. Maloney testified.  Maloney was a crime reporter who had first-hand knowledge of the subject.   He had been convicted of murder and armed robbery, crimes committed when he was 19.  He got four life sentences and served 13 years before he was paroled to become a Star reporter.  He told the committee that night of the hours after the murder and the armed robbery when a policeman came near his hiding place.  He had the cop in his gun sights, Maloney told the committee, and he never once thought about what his punishment would be if he pulled the trigger. The officer moved on without spotting Maloney, probably saving his life. The death penalty, Maloney said, is not a deterrent.  Criminals don’t think about punishment when they’re committing their crimes.

Death penalty debates, even those on a seemingly detached issue such as who will pay for a study of the costs of prison life or prison death, are almost always rooted in emotion, in the conflicting values that make us human, the conflicting values of a family glad their condemned son will live a few more months or years so they can visit him, or of a family that has been wondering for almost 25 years what might have been if two killers with consequences of their acts the farthest things from their minds had not murdered a teenage girl.  J. J. Maloney, a murderer and reporter who gave lawmakers an inside look at the mind of a criminal all those years ago, died in 1999 at the age of 59 at the home of his mother, who had visited him in prison every month and who every day wrote him a letter. And the search for justice goes on.

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