Tomorrow, the Death Penalty Information Center will release a report that documents how racial bias and violence affected the past use of the death penalty in Missouri and how that history continues to influence the current administration of capital punishment in the state. Compromised Justice: How A Legacy of Racial Violence Informs Missouri’s Death Penalty Today, scheduled for release on December 1, 2023, notes that historically and into the present day, Missouri’s death penalty has been applied discriminatorily based on race. 

The report explains that before Missouri gained statehood in 1821, the territory adopted laws that stipulated that certain crimes could only be tried capitally if committed by an enslaved person. Even after gaining statehood and adopting superficially race-neutral capital punishment laws, the death penalty continued to be applied discriminatorily. Before the end of slavery in 1865, enslaved people were four times more likely to be executed than white Missourians.  

Missouri also has a long history of terrorizing Black communities. As Compromised Justice explains, the first documented lynching in U.S. history happened in Missouri in 1838, and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, at least 60 Black Missourians were killed in lynchings. This makes it the state with the second highest number of racial terror lynchings outside of the South. Missouri also retained public executions longer than most other states, which served as another avenue for threatening and intimidating Black Missourians. There are examples of sheriffs handing out souvenirs—ranging from rope to severed heads—to those who attended public executions, a practice commonly seen with lynchings.  

DPIC’s review of modern death sentencing statistics reveal a continued emphasis on race in Missouri’s capital punishment system. 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. 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. Additionally, studies have found that homicides involving white victims are seven times more likely to result in an execution than those with Black victims. The overrepresentation of white victim cases is reminiscent of trends seen in the 19th and 20th century when Black people could be lynched or sentenced to death based on flimsy evidence if they were accused of harming a white person.  

“Nothing can change the fact that racial violence and discrimination are part of Missouri’s history. But studying the past can help us understand why racial disparities continue today, especially in our death penalty system, and inform future decisions,” said Tiana Herring, DPIC’s Data Storyteller and the lead author of the report.