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Bill would exempt mentally retarded from death penalty

February 28, 2000
By: Jennifer Lutz
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1225

JEFFERSON CITY - Various agencies reached an agreement late Monday afternoon whether mentally retarded people should be excluded from receiving the death penalty.

Prosecutors, defense attorneys, the Attorney General's office, and members of the Catholic Conference agreed upon several issues relating to the death penalty and mentally retarded defendants.

The compromise centered around a bill by Rep. Mike Schilling, D-Springfield. His proposal would provide life in prison without the possibility of parole for mentally retarded people guilty of first-degree murder. The bill says whether a person is mentally retarded "shall be heard and determined by the trial court out of hearing of the jury prior to the commencement of the trial."

If it is proven that the defendant is mentally retarded during the pretrial phase, the evidence can be presented to the jury if it is relevant.

The Executive Director of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Cole County's Prosecutor Rich Callahan, supports the legislation to eliminate the possibility of the death penalty for mentally retarded.

"I don't believe that we've necessarily had a problem with this issue in Missouri," Callahan said. "Nonetheless, I still believe this compromise will help to ensure we don't have a problem in Missouri."

However, Kevin Crane, Boone County Prosecuting Attorney, has a different take on the compromise within Shilling's bill.

"People may fall under the definition of mental retardation, but know full well they committed an illegal act and further deliberated before they killed somebody," he said. "I'm just not in favor of such a measure."

Crane said defense attorneys can now argue to a jury that the defendant is mentally retarded. The jury can then decide whether or not they agree.

Schilling said his bill would go a step further and not rely just on whether or not a jury believes the defendant is mentally retarded.

Rep. Craig Hosmer, D-Springfield, who chairs the House Criminal Law Committee where Schilling's bill will be heard possibly on Tuesday, co-sponsored the legislation. He said he wanted to make sure the legislation would protect the mentally retarded, but not provide an outlet for those who are not retarded.

"The goal is to eliminate the death penalty for those truly mentally retarded," Hosmer said. "Everyone agrees with that."

Schilling's bill would also create a nine-person commission on the death penalty that would hold public meetings to discuss whether or not the death penalty should be used in certain cases. The committee would study all first- and second-degree murder cases that were decided on or after Jan. 1, 1977.

One assignment of the committee would be to determine if evidence existed that the defendant was mentally retarded. The committee would report its findings to the governor, members of the legislature and the Missouri Supreme Court by Jan. 1, 2003.