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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Missouri set to execute inmate tonight

Posted by on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 4:22 PM

Update (5/20/09): Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon denied clemency shortly after 5 p.m. Tuesday, and the state executed Dennis Killicorn shortly after midnight today. Updated, with reference to HB 1203 (Felony Murder), below.

For those following the mercurial advancements of the death penalty in North Carolina (updates here and here), Missouri's story is a reminder of what's at stake.

Stories in The New York Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch describe Missouri lawmakers' reluctance to end that state's court-imposed moratorium, in place one year longer than North Carolina's de facto moratorium--even as the state prepares to execute an inmate shortly after midnight tonight. From the NYT story:

“I still favor the death penalty, but I just want to make sure we put the right people to death,” said State Representative Bill Deeken, a Republican, explaining why he last week proposed delaying the death penalty for two years more until a study can determine whether it is meted out fairly in this state. “At this point, we just do not know.”

Last week, Missouri's Republican-controlled House passed the two-year moratorium measure, though the state Senate did not take up the bill. That parallels North Carolina's failed attempt to establish a moratorium in the Legislature to study inaccuracies in the death sentencing process in 2003. That year, the state Senate voted for a two-year moratorium, but the measure did not pass the House.

Like Missouri, North Carolina's executions have been on hold due to challenges in the court system. Missouri has resolved all of its legal challenges--including a halt to executions, by federal court order, following testimony from a doctor who admitted he was dyslexic, and at times improvised lethal-injection dosages when executing inmates. North Carolina still has at least one case pending: a June 1 hearing to determine if the execution protocol is unconstitutional for being a cruel and unusual punishment.

North Carolina and Missouri also share the unpleasant distinction of having exonerated death-row inmates who were later found to be wrongfully convicted. Since 1973, Missouri has exonerated three death-row inmates; North Carolina has exonerated eight. For states like Illinois, that has been enough evidence to declare a moratorium; for death-penalty advocates like N.C. House Minority Leader Paul Stam, that's evidence the death penalty appeal process is working.

Finally, both Missouri's and North Carolina's general statutes allow for the execution of felons who were present when a murder was committed, but did not commit the murder themselves. (Other staunchly pro-death penalty states, such as Texas, do not.) In North Carolina, a defendant could be found guilty of first-degree murder for assisting or abetting in an arson, rape or sex offense, robbery, kidnapping, burglary, or other felony committed or attempted with the use of a deadly weapon, resulting in a murder. N.C. House Bill 1326 and H.B. 1203, which have stalled in committee this year, would have removed this language from the general statutes.

Dennis Skillicorn, the Missouri inmate scheduled to be executed tonight, was convicted of murder for his role in kidnapping Richard Drummond, a good Samaritan who stopped to help Skillicorn and two other defendants whose car had stalled on the side of the road. One of the other defendants later shot Drummond to death; Skillicorn maintains he never intended for Drummond to die.

Again, from the NYT story:

“He is not the one who actually killed the person, and that just says to me: ‘Whoa! Let’s take a step back,’ ” said State Representative Steven Tilley, the Republican leader. “Look, I’m not soft on crime, but we can’t redo this once we’ve executed this person,” Mr. Tilley said, adding that he has been a supporter of the death penalty, but fears it is flawed as it is being carried out.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Missouri and North Carolina is our governor's clear support for the death penalty--precluding, it seems, any moratorium from the executive branch.

“Gov. Perdue continues to support the death penalty, and will continue to monitor this case until it finishes working its way through the legal process,” Chrissy Pearson, press secretary for the Governor’s office, wrote in an e-mail, regarding the recent Council of State decision, in favor of the death penalty protocol in North Carolina.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon--like Perdue, a first-term Democrat in a socially conservative state--has not yet responded to Killicorn's clemency request, and death penalty reform activists are still hoping for a final-hour pardon.

Look for updates on the Racial Justice Act, and the death penalty in North Carolina, in tomorrow's Independent Weekly.

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