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McCaskill thinks Missouri has a fair system in the prosecution of death penalty cases. But she points out that without certain measures enacted by Gov. Mel Carnahan, some inmates would have been executed. "Carnahan has advocated for increases for appropriations to public defenders, which helps," she says. "Carnahan has a person in his office doing nothing but reviewing death penalty cases. So far, he has seen cases where police have lied, witnesses were mistaken, representation was no good. I have seen those things too. Any prosecutor that doesn't take those things into consideration is not doing his or her job."
Jackson County Prosecutor Bob Beaird was a defense attorney for 30 years before being appointed to the vacancy McCaskill left when she was elected state auditor in 1998. He says prosecutors have gained the perception of pursuing high-profile crimes for better results at the ballot box. "But when you look at when that's maybe happened, it doesn't translate into votes," he says. "Voters have a lot of common sense. They know if the cases a prosecutor has been on were dealt with in a way that was fair to the defendant and the state. A prosecutor's duty is to justice. If someone has poor representation, you see that and take steps to deal with that. You don't prosecute a case to run over someone.
"Prosecutors do not want trials coming back to them. If you have a bunch of them come back (through the appeals process), you are wasting your time and the resources of the court. Many unjustly tried cases end in mistrial. If they make it through, the appeals process kicks them back. We have good public defenders here in Jackson County. Outside urban areas, however, you run a greater risk of getting someone who tries a criminal case once every 10 or 15 years. They just don't have the skill and knowledge to do it right and make sure the process is fair."
McCaskill also says a prosecutor must make sure the playing field is level. She says she has turned in defense attorneys to the Missouri Bar Association who she thought were incompetent. "In one case, an attorney was impaired with drugs and alcohol, and I could not let that case go forward," she says. "I don't think people realize the difficulty the defense of people facing death is. In Jackson County, we are especially blessed to have Sean and Kent and Cindy Short. A good prosecutor wants a good defense. They want justice, and not convictions. Some of the most difficult decisions I had to make were on death penalty cases. You have to be on guard against socioeconomic and political pressure. It's there, and I won't say some prosecutors don't succumb to that. It is certainly a variable."
Beaird says he believes Gipson and O'Brien are invaluable. Pieces make up the criminal justice system: law enforcement, prosecution, defense, the judge, and jury. "Kent and Sean's role in the whole is essential," he says. "They are the watchdogs, the guys who make sure we do what we do right. What they have done in the past has been appropriate and essential. Their service to the system can't be replaced.
"We could make a mistake, and I believe prosecutors do, as human beings. The whole system is built on a clash between two sides. At a trial, the two sides go at each other, taking no quarter. Somewhere between them is the truth. But the two sides must be equals if the truth is to be found. There must be a fair fight for a fair result."