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The Pros And Cons Of The Death Penalty:

Two Parallel Discussions


With the recent run of executions in Missouri, it seemed apropos to review some of the
arguments for and against the controversial subject of capital punishment. In two separate
interviews, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh did just that.

Advocating for the death penalty was St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who
sometimes seeks the death penalty in the cases he prosecutes. Advocating against the death
penalty was Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. She has advocated for social
justice and against capital punishment on the world stage for some thirty years, and is in the St.
Louis region to speak at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.

Whats your best argument for capital punishment?

I think its an appropriate punishment, and thats what were talking about here, punishment....
You have to keep in mind that these cases are not the standard murder case that you come across.
No murder is good but these are particularly horrendous. Theyre off the charts, he said. One
case I tried was a fellow who was almost 6 6, almost 300 pounds, and he literally butchered
his girlfriend and her two-year-old baby gutted them and cut the little girls head off.

What constitutes horrendous and worthy of the death penalty?

Were not talking about cases where there is a barroom brawl or two guys arguing over who
should have won the World Series and one shoots the other. Those cases are probably not even
murder first degree, and certainly not death penalty cases.

As a prosecutor in the state of Missouri, McCulloch follows the state statute to determine how to
try a murder case.

There have to be very specific statutory aggravating circumstances in addition to being a


murder in the first degree. Its a murder for hire, multiple murders, cases that are killing a
witness, killing a police officer in the line of duty, doing it while there are other felonies being
committedJeffrey Ferguson for example was a kidnapping, rape and murder, and thats what
set it apart from other even murder first degree cases.

Has your view on the death penalty evolved over the years?

No, it hasnt. I follow the same process and procedure. The good news is that we follow that
process fewer times now because there are fewer murders. There are less than half the number of
murders in this country today, certainly in St. Louis County and in Missouri, there are fewer than
half than there were 20 years ago. An incredibly small number of the total murders are death
penalty cases.
Have there been cases where people have been executed who were later proven to be
innocent?

No. There are claims out there about that by anti-death penalty people but in the modern era of
the death penalty, which is since about the mid-70s when it was reinstated and approved by the
Supreme Court, there has not been.

There have been cases certainly where people were sentenced to death and in prison awaiting
the appellate process who were later determined to be actually innocent. Those are few and far
between, fortunately.

What about the racial disparity of the people on death row?

Most of the people under a sentence of death in this country are white. And most of the
executions that are carried out, the defendants are white. The comparison they make isan
invalid comparison.

What theyre comparing is the number of blacks on death row under a sentence of death to the
general population. And its out of proportion there. But the valid comparison is: compare the
number of blacks under a sentence of death to the number of murders committed by black men.
And its almost in exact proportion; its about 40 to 45 percent. The question they should be
asking is: why are so many young black men committing murders and why are so many young
black men the victim of murders?

Sister Helen Prejean: The Anti-Death-Penalty Argument

On where Missouri stands in the death penalty spectrum

Missouri is one of the states that does a lot of killing. The Supreme Court gave out a guideline
that the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst. Nobody really knows
what that means because when anyone that we love is killed thats the worst of the worst, said
Sister Helen Prejean.

I think what its pointing to, after 30 years of practice on this, is that the sign under the Supreme
Court equal justice under the law people dont know how to apply it. And its left up to
individuals. Its left up to prosecutors. And we see how it pans out. We know that 8 out of every
10 people executed or on death row are there for killing white people, where when we kill people
of color there doesnt seem to be the same outrage of pressing for ultimate justice.

Prosecutors here seem to think it is fairly well spelled out as to what constitutes a heinous
crime, and that theyre simply following the state guideline.

Yeah, and look at the guidelines. I know them pretty well in most states. Cruel, heinous, thats a
bunch of adjectives but if a black kid gets killed in the neighborhood, somehow we never feel
its cruel or heinous. If a policeman gets killed, well that is the death penalty but not if a fireman
gets killed. When we go to do our statutes, we have to delineate. Law always means youre going
to delineate. And then its up to the discretion of the prosecutor to decide.

What about the biblical quote an eye for an eye?

The selective Bible quoting has gone on forever. We did it for slavery; we did it for why
women couldnt vote, said Sister Helen Prejean. Youve got to really know the Bible, the
context in which it was written and what the spiritual message of it is. And it all moves towards
compassion and life.

Look at the life of Jesus, she said. He was executed by the Romans and his last words were
forgive them because they dont realize what theyre doing.

In your thirty years of advocating against the death penalty in the United States, why do you
think things have remained fairly stable or static?

I dont think they are static. This year is the lowest support for the death penalty weve seen
since 1957. It registers at 60 percent of the American public say they are for the death
penaltywhen people are offered the alternative of life without parole, it drops below 50
percent. In the last seven years weve had seven states that have ended the death penalty..there
has been a real shift not only in the number of states ending it, but the number of executions, the
number of death penalties sought. Its been a drastic drop in the practice of the death penalty, and
I think were on our way for it to be on its way out.

Arent we doing pretty well compared to countries that execute rape victims or people from
opposite political parties?

Until you look at 194 nations in the world, and see the vast majority no longer have the death
penalty.of the top five countries that do executions, were in league with China, Saudi Arabia,
Iran, Iraq and what kind of company is that? I mean, what kind of standards of human rights do
these countries have? We dont need to do the death penalty anymore. We need to take it off the
table where death is not in the arbitration of deciding about how to punish criminals.

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