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McCaskill was tough but fair, say defense attorneys. "She went for the death penalty far less frequently than I thought she was going to," Pilate says. "There are many others in Missouri who are not so fair."
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon's office, says spokesperson Scott Holste, lets district attorneys and elected prosecutors handle initial trials. State trials are handled by special prosecutors under the auspices of Nixon's office. "Mostly, we handle the appeals," Holste says. "The people of Missouri have determined through representatives or through the ballot that there are measures that are appropriate in heinous murder cases. One measure of punishment includes the death penalty. I don't think any prosecutor goes into a case pushing for the death penalty for poll numbers. I don't see decisions made on fighting crime measured in terms of benefit to officeholders. Whether that happens or not, I think you can find arguments both ways." Pilate points out other problems. "When a murder happens in a jurisdiction not used to homicide, charging the criminal with a capital crime is the visceral response we see. I have not seen the degree of racial prejudice in Jackson County that exists in other parts of the state. But I have to say the overwhelming bias for the death penalty is poverty. Everyone on Missouri's death row is poor. Across the country, there are very few rich people on death row."
"I don't think you can look at the demographics of death row and make conclusions," says Holste. "Because someone is convicted and poor, that is not what lands them on death row. Some on death row were not indigent."
Missouri also executes mental incompetents, people with mental illness, and people who were minors when they committed crimes, Pilate says.
An example is Roosevelt Pollard, now 35, who was fingered by three other men in the 1993 death of a drug dealer near St. Louis. The men, who were with Pollard at the time of the murder, were released and not prosecuted. Pollard's complicity in the crime is in question. He was not able to defend himself and was not able to communicate with his lawyers after his arrest. Pollard's physical abuse as a child is well documented, and he received a severe head injury from an iron pipe in a fight at the age of 12. Pollard never matured mentally past the age of 5. He is also severely schizophrenic. In 1995, he came extraordinarily close to execution before the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the action pending a mental review. He was once again close to execution in 1997, when the Department of Corrections determined he probably was not competent for execution. His execution was stayed, and after an examination, he was found to be incompetent. He still sits on death row.
In 1992, Ricky Grubbs was executed for killing a man during a card game in which the three participants were very drunk. Grubbs' first trial ended in a hung jury because Grubbs testified and proved to the jury that he was severely mentally handicapped. In the second trial, the jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to the death penalty but never knew that Grubbs was mentally retarded -- the information was never offered at the trial. "A fully informed jury would never have given him the death penalty," O'Brien says. Grubbs did not realize he was going to be executed until just before he died.