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Missouri's history of lynching lives on. Just look at the death penalty

Five people can be seen standing outdoors at a metal fence railing. They are holding signs that read: "The Death Penalty, We Can Live Without It," "Clemency for Amber," "Stop State Murder."
David A. Lieb
Associated Press
Sue Gibson, left, of Jefferson City, and Jay Castilow of Columbia, hold signs along with others outside the Missouri Supreme Court building while protesting the execution of Amber McLaughlin on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Jefferson City. McLaughlin, who was convicted of murder, is believed to be the first transgender woman executed in the U.S.

In 2023, Missouri executed four people, making it one of just five states to use the death penalty — and another execution has been set for this year.

Missouri’s use of the death penalty — a “consistent outlier” as use of capital punishment wanes across the country — has a direct tie to the state’s history of lynching, a new report says.

The report, “Compromised Justice,” says the state has applied the death penalty with discrimination, and that it is more than seven times more likely to be used when the homicide involves a white victim versus a Black victim.

Since 1972, 52 Black defendants who were charged with killing a white person have received death sentences, while just seven white defendants got the death penalty for killing a Black victim, according to the report.

Those numbers, as well as other studies, show that “whiteness is valued over non-whiteness,” said Tiana Herring, the report’s author and a data storyteller with the Death Penalty Information Center.

“That’s a stark example of how we can kind of see similar influences in how we’re defining what justice looks like and who deserves to be prosecuted just based on the race of the victim alone,” Herring said.

Missouri is among a few non-Southern states with the highest number of “racial terror lynchings,” at 60, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

The first documented lynching in U.S. history was said to be in 1836, when a white mob in St. Louis burned a 26-year-old free Black man named Frances McIntosh alive, according to “Discovering African American St. Louis: a Guide to Historic Sites.”

The killing of Frances McIntosh in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1836 is said to be the first documented report of lynching.
Library of Congress
The killing of Frances McIntosh in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1836 is said to be the first documented report of lynching.

Herring said she found a direct tie from past racial acts of terror to modern-day death penalty numbers.

“I often come across news articles or old books that talk about lynchings and death sentences in the same breath,” she said. “Those historical forces are really what makes it very clear to me that there is a connection between these two things."

In 2023, Missouri executed four people, making it one of just five states to use the death penalty. The Missouri Supreme Court has scheduled another execution for April 2024.

Herring also describes the racial disparities in the state’s high homicide rate as “especially stark.” For the seventh year in a row, Missouri has had the highest Black homicide rate in the U.S., as Black residents are killed at more than twice the national rate, according to the Violence Policy Center.

“It seems that something’s not in balance and one of the purposes of the report is to at least draw attention to the fact that there may be some underlying subconscious issues at play here that predate all of us,” Herring said. “The legacies of violence and discrimination in the report may be ingrained in our systems more than we know.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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