The Missouri Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Wednesday in a case challenging the legality of one aspect of Missouri’s death penalty statute.
Marvin D. Rice, a former deputy sheriff in Dent County, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2011 for killing his ex-girlfriend, who was the mother of his child, as well as her boyfriend. Jurors were unable to reach a unanimous finding on punishment, as 11 of the 12 favored a life sentence, so the judge imposed punishment instead and gave Rice the death penalty.
Death penalty opponents argue that the sentencing law is unconstitutional because it gives a judge the power to impose capital punishment, even when jury can’t agree it’s warranted.
Staci Pratt is executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which, along with the ACLU, filed a friend-of-the-court brief.
“We believe strongly that it is not the prerogative of judges to impose a capital sentence, and the people who sit on a jury are in the best position to determine the nuances and facts of the case,” Pratt said.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office, which is defending the state in the case, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that any circumstance that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Missouri’s death penalty law requires the jury to make such findings, and then it must determine the relative weight of aggravating and mitigating circumstances before deciding whether to sentence someone to death.
In the past five years, only two death sentences have been imposed in Missouri — both by judges. Before that, Missouri was one of the more prolific states when it came to capital punishment sentences; in the 1990s, it averaged about eight a year.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has in fact invalidated death penalty statutes in other jurisdictions which empowered judges to impose capital sentences,” Pratt said.
In Rice’s case, the jury found one aggravating circumstance, but the jurors couldn't all agree there were enough mitigating circumstances to outweigh the aggravating one. That’s when the judge took it upon himself to sentence Rice to death.
Another part of the case
Among the legal issues the Missouri Supreme Court will consider is whether the judge violated Rice’s constitutional rights to due process and trial by jury. Pratt pointed out that in 2017 Alabama barred its judges from imposing death sentences when a jury is unable to decide unanimously on punishment.
“It was a measure that was supported among the Republicans,” Pratt said. “They did not want electoral pressure to play a role and in a decision in an individual case."
“And I think that's what we fear as well," she added. "Judges are elected and they sometimes feel the pressure to make a decision that may be seen as tough on crime, but they are not in the same position as a jury of peers who are not looking for elected office.”
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.