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A Time To Die

March 09, 1998
By: Ann S. Kim
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - The drama of midnight executions would become a thing of the past in Missouri under a House bill that has yet to encounter public resistance in the legislature.

Executions traditionally have been set for just after midnight -- the earliest possible time on the execution day set by the court.

Scheduling executions for 12:01 a.m. left almost 24 full hours available for the state to respond to any last-minute court orders blocking the execution. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Wayne Crump, D-Potosi, would require the 24-hour window to begin at 6 p.m. or later.

Attorney General Jay Nixon called for the change in October. Nixon said that judges shouldn't have to make such serious decisions at odd hours, echoing a concern voiced by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor a couple months earlier. At a speech in Portland, Ore., O'Connor complained that midnight executions often bring with them last-minute appeals in the middle of the night.

"Dispensing justice at that hour of the morning is difficult, to say the least," O'Connor said.

Nixon also said that holding executions during the day would make it easier for victims' families to be present.

The bill was voted out of a House committee unanimously by all members present. If the measure is passed into law, Missouri would join Arizona, Texas and Virginia -- states that have already moved their execution times from midnight.

Earlier executions reflect their increasingly routine nature, said Richard Dieter, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a research organization. He cited Texas as an example, saying the state has reached an execution rate of one per week.

In 1997, 74 prisoners were executed across the country -- the most since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Dieter said. Six of those executions were in Missouri.

Scheduling them during the day present "executions as business, as machinelike," Dieter said. "Without a lot of reflection, without a lot of drama."