Compromised Justice: How A Legacy of Racial Violence Informs Missouri’s Death Penalty Today

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Cover of Compromised Justice report. It is a black and white photo taken before an execution in the 1800s.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that has consistently executed people in the last five years. In 2023, Missouri executed four people. Understanding the historical application of the death penalty in Missouri helps our understanding of how capital punishment is used today.  

Historically, Missouri’s Death Penalty Was Applied Discriminatorily Based on Race 

Decades before Missouri gained statehood, the territory adopted capital punishment laws that were applied based on race. There were at least four crimes that could only be tried capitally if committed by an enslaved person. After Missouri became a state in 1821 and had adopted superficially race-neutral capital punishment laws, the death penalty continued to be applied discriminatorily: enslaved people were four times more likely to be executed than white Missourians before 1865.  

Missouri Has a Substantial History of Racial Violence Directed at Black Missourians 

The first documented lynching in U.S. history happened in Missouri in 1838. By the late 1800s, racial terror lynchings had increased in regularity, particularly in Southern, former slave-holding states. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, at least 60 Black Missourians were killed in lynchings, making it the state with the second highest number of racial terror lynchings outside of the South.  

Although the number of lynchings declined, public executions continued in Missouri longer than all but one other state. Public executions were a form of racial violence: there are examples of sheriffs providing execution attendees with souvenirs such as pieces of the ropes used to hang Black people and even the victim’s body parts. After a quadruple execution in St. Louis, a drug store owner was permitted to display the severed head of a Black person who was executed in his shop. The constant reminders of brutal lynchings and executions were used by white people to continually threaten and intimidate Black people.  

Modern Death Sentencing Trends Reveal a Continued Emphasis on Race in Capital Punishment, and Prosecutorial Decision-Making is a Cause of Racial Disparities 

One of the most clear and persistent racial disparities in death sentencing concerns the overrepresentation of white victims among cases resulting in a death sentence. In Missouri, homicides involving white victims are seven times more likely to result in an execution than those with Black victims. Of all death sentences imposed in Missouri since 1972, 80% have involved white victims, even though white victims make up roughly 36% of homicide victims in the state. Meanwhile, 2020 homicide data revealed that, for the seventh year in a row, Missouri had the highest Black homicide victimization rate in the country.  

Statistical analyses have found that broad prosecutorial discretion is one reason for continuing racial disparities in capital sentencing. One study found that prosecutors were less than half as likely to file a capital charge in cases that involve Black victims compared to cases involving white victims. A separate study determined that Black defendants who killed white victims were five times more likely to be charged with murder than Black defendants in intraracial cases. The authors of this study concluded that “whiteness is valued over non-whiteness.”  



Illustrative Stories From Compromised Justice Up

Celia, a Slave 

In 1855, an 18-year-old pregnant, enslaved girl named Celia was accused of killing her owner after he attempted to rape her. The morning after the murder, a white neighbor forced a confession from her, later saying he had a rope “provided for her if she did not tell.” This confession was then used to secure a death sentence for her. At the time, Missouri law made it a crime to “take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress” and resisting these advances could have been considered a justifiable excuse for a woman to kill a man. Despite her attorney’s pleas to instruct the jury on the language in this statute being “any woman,” the judge decided against informing them, and Celia was sentenced to death. She was hanged on December 21, 1855.  

Easter Sunday Lynchings of Horace Duncan, Fred Coker, and Will Allen 

In April 1906, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker, two innocent Black men, were abducted from the county jail in Springfield, Missouri and lynched by a white mob of several thousand participants. Duncan and Coker were arrested after a white woman reported being assaulted by two Black man. There was no evidence that Duncan and Coker were involved in the crime, and their employer also provided an alibi confirming that they could not have been involved in the alleged assault. Nevertheless, as one newspaper reported, the mob “was bent on vengeance and in no mood to discriminate between guilt and innocence.” After watching Duncan and Coker’s bodies burn to ash, the mob continued their rampage and abducted another Black man from the jail. Will Allen became the third and final victim of this Eastern Sunday lynch mob. Two days later, the woman who reported the assault issued a statement saying she was “positive” that Coker and Duncan were not her assailants, but it was too late. No one was convicted following the lynching. 

Cleo Wright 

Cleo Wright, a 30-year-old Black man, was accused of assaulting a white woman in January 1942. After his arrest, he was shot four times by one officer, and beaten on the skull with a revolver by another officer until he fell out of the police car. The hospital refused to admit Wright for treatment because of his race. By 9 AM the following day, a crowd of 500 people had gathered, and his virtually unconscious body was dragged into the Black residential district—which was likely an intentional choice to further terrorize the Black community. Wright’s body was then set on fire by the mob. Wright’s lynching was the first lynching to result in a Department of Justice civil rights investigation. Though federal authorities investigated the lynching, no one was indicted or convicted in the murder. Many people who were at the lynching are still living today, according to Sikeston natives, where the lynching occurred. 

 Kevin Johnson 

While white police officers who kill Black civilians are rarely charged (let alone convicted), Black civilians who kill white police officers are often charged and prosecuted. Kevin Johnson was tried capitally twice in St. Louis County for killing a police officer in 2005. A special prosecutor reviewed Johnson’s case in 2021 and found that “unconstitutional racial discrimination infected [his] prosecution.” Among other evidence of racial discrimination, the special prosecutor found racial differences in charging decisions for cases involving officer killings. Bob McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor responsible for a third of Missouri’s active death sentences, prosecuted five police officer killings during his tenure. McCulloch sought the death penalty in the four cases with Black defendants. In the one case involving a white defendant, McCulloch sought life, even though the defendant had bragged on social media about wanting to kill cops. Further, the white defendant’s attorneys were given almost a year to collect mitigating evidence, while the Black defendants were not given the same opportunities. 

Ernest Johnson 

Ernest Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 and executed in 2021 despite strong evidence that he was intellectually disabled. Mr. Johnson had shown signs of intellectual disability from a very young age: he was held back twice in grade school, academic tests placed him in the bottom 1–2% in math and reading, and his siblings said he struggled with basic skills such as using a knife and fork. Mr. Johnson’s attempts to seek relief because of his intellectual disability were thwarted based on an opinion from a technician who lacked any training in administering IQ tests or making clinical observations about them. The prosecutor used this testimony to accuse Mr. Johnson of intentionally lowering his IQ scores, which consistently fell around or below 70, a number that experts believe is consistent with intellectual disability. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Mr. Johnson’s intellectual disability claims, crediting the unqualified technician’s opinions. Diverse stakeholders called on Governor Mike Parsons to exercise clemency, including former Governor Bob Holden who allowed 20 people to be executed while he was in office. Gov. Parsons refused to grant clemency, and Mr. Johnson was executed on October 5, 2021.  

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