On November 20, 2013, the Department of Corrections carried out its first execution in nearly three years. Joseph Paul Franklin, a White Supremacist who targeted Blacks and Jews, killed Gerald Gordon in a sniper shooting in 1977 at a suburban St. Louis synagogue.
Following the shooting, Franklin went on a cross-country killing spree until his apprehension in 1980. He was convicted of eight murders but claimed responsibility for up to twenty killings overall. The Missouri killing was the only one that brought the death sentence—and it took over thirty-three years to carry it out. Franklin also admitted to shooting and wounding Civil Rights leader Vernon Jordan and Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynn, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since the 1978 attack.
Some view the death penalty as just and reasonable, while others see it as inhumane and barbaric. In a recent Missouri poll, two out of three Missourians favor the death penalty for murder, saying that it is important for the victim’s family to see justice served. Those in opposition mainly pointed to the cost in appeals and legal fees, saying that life without parole would be a lot less costly to the state.
The death penalty was first used in Missouri in 1810—years before Missouri ever became a state— when a man by the name of Peter Johnson was executed by hanging, after being convicted of murder. From 1810 to 1937, hanging was the primary method for execution in the state. In 1937, Missouri changed to the use of lethal gas –cyanide—and built a gas chamber in Jefferson City. It was used until 1965. Thirty-eight inmates were executed in this gas chamber. From 1810 until 1965, Missouri executed a total of 285 inmates. The majority of these received the death sentence for murder. Following the last execution by lethal gas in 1965, Missouri had no more executions until January of 1989.
In 1968 the death penalty was put on hold in the United States in order to determine whether its use was constitutionally sound. In June of 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5 to 4 vote, ruled that capital punishment was in violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by being cruel and unusual punishment. In the Court ruling, it was determined that capital punishment could not be carried out until the laws were revised that would allow for a more humane way to administer the punishment. After reforming state laws, Missouri and other states cleared the way to reinstate the use of capital punishment, and in May of 1977, Missouri passed the Capital Murder Act. This bill was modeled after other states’ laws and capital punishment methods that were deemed constitutional. Missouri’s law listed fourteen specific reasons a person may be given the death sentence. The most common reason, and today the only reason for receiving the death penalty, is for murder. The method of execution was changed to lethal injection, the method proven to be the most humane way to carry out the sentence. Formerly, Missouri used a three-drug mixture; however, unable to get all three drugs, they turned to a single drug, pentobarbital. This drug was successfully used by Ohio and six other states and was used in the Franklin execution.
Today Missouri is one of thirty-four states that utilizes capital punishment and ranks fifth in the nation in the number of executions carried out. Beginning in 1989 and going through 2013, sixty-nine individuals—all convicted of murder, or multiple murders—have been executed by lethal injections. Twenty-one of the forty-seven inmates now sentenced to die have filed appeals, questioning the use of pentobarbital.
While I know this isn’t a very pleasant subject to discuss, I feel that my constituents want to be informed about the incarceration of lawbreakers, capital punishment, and the way Missouri is currently dealing with these issues.