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Missouri bill would expand death penalty to certain sex crimes against children

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, speaks about a bill on Thursday, May 11, 2023, during the waning hours of the legislative session in Jefferson City, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, speaks about a bill last May during the waning hours of the legislative session in Jefferson City.

Despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling the practice unconstitutional, legislation from state Sen. Mike Moon’s, R-Ash Grove, would allow the death penalty in non-homicide cases.

A bill that would add child sex trafficking and statutory rape to the crimes eligible for the death penalty was debated Monday in a Missouri Senate committee — despite conflicting with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The legislation is sponsored by state Sen. Mike Moon, an Ash Grove Republican who said Monday that one of the “principal purposes of government” is to “punish evil.”

Rape of children under 14 and child trafficking of children under 12 would be crimes eligible for the death penalty under his bill.

“And what’s more evil than taking the innocence of the child during the act of a rape? Children are in large part defenseless and an act such as rape can kill the child emotionally,” he said.

“And so I believe a just consequence, after a reasonable opportunity for defense, is death.”

The Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard the bill Monday.

State Sen. Karla May, a Democrat from St. Louis, pointed to Moon’s stance of “believing in life” as an outspoken opponent of abortion without exception for rape or incest, yet supporting expanding the death penalty.

“A 12 year old who gets pregnant, you believe that she should bring that child in the world, am I correct?” May asked.

“What crime did that child, that developing human child, commit to deserve death?” Moon replied.

“…But you believe in killing the father to that child?” May asked, if the father is a rapist.

“Yes,” Moon said.”If an attacker commits a heinous crime such as the ones that I mentioned in this presentation, I believe that if they’re charged and convicted, absolutely.”

The Rev. Timothy Faber testified in support of Moon’s bill, pointing to the “lifelong repercussions” of child rape and trafficking.

“It’s also a well established fact that those who commit sexual crimes seldom if ever change their ways,” he said. “Once a sexual offender, always a sexual offender.”

Elyse Max, co-director of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, opposed the bill during Monday’s hearing.

“If the goal is to overturn established U.S. Supreme Court precedent, it’s far from a guarantee,” Max said, “and the amount of resources the state of Missouri would have to spend as well as the trauma to child victims during the process cannot be understated.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in the 2008 case Kennedy v. Louisiana ruled giving the death penalty to those convicted of child rape violates the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment unless the crime results in the victim’s death or is intended to. Only homicide and a narrow set of “crimes against the state” can be punishable by death, the court ruled.

“Adding statutory rape and trafficking as death-eligible crimes are a slippery slope,” Max said, “of expanding the death penalty to non-murder crimes that would bring the constitutionality of Missouri’s death penalty into doubt.”

“Instead of spending millions of dollars to possibly change long-standing precedent, Missouri resources should be spent to protect children from abuse in the first place, and ensure survivors have access to mental health treatment and proper support, following the offense,” Max said.

Moon said, regarding the Supreme Court precedent, that it’s worth challenging.

“That’s something that we need to start the conversation about,” he said, “and those things need to be challenged.”

Florida passed a similar law for victims of rape under age 12 last year. It received bipartisan support. In December, prosecutors in that state announced they’d seek the death penalty in a case of a man accused of sexually abusing a child.

Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis has said the state’s bill could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue.

Mary Fox, director of Missouri State Public Defender, which provides defense for the majority of death penalty cases in the state, argued Monday that the death penalty is “no deterrent to a crime.”

Fox also noted that an 18 year old dating a 14 year old could be executed under Moon’s legislation because that would be considered statutory rape.

Mei Hall, a resident of Columbia who also said she was a victim of sexual abuse, also testified in opposition.

“I don’t wish my abuser death,” Hall said. “I wish them to be sequestered away and unable to harm more people, for sure. But I don’t think it’s the state’s place to kill people in general and I don’t think it’s the state’s place to make it more difficult for child victims to come forward.”

Lobbyists from Empower Missouri and Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also testified against the bill. A lobbyist from ArmorVine, testified in support.

Missouri was one of only five states to carry out death sentences last year, along with Texas, Florida, Oklahoma and Alabama. There are two executions scheduled for this year.

Three House bills filed this year would eliminate the state’s death penalty, but none has made it to a committee hearing.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.
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