Calling the death penalty “ineffective, racially based, hypocritical and inhumane,” St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell (pictured) has renewed his pledge to never authorize a capital prosecution. In a December 23, 2020 op-ed in the St. Louis American, Bell urged “all prosecutors in Missouri who currently consider the death penalty an option to stop.”

Bell, a former Ferguson, Missouri city council member, public defender, and prosecutor, first ran for prosecuting attorney in 2018 on a reform platform of ending cash bail for nonviolent offenses, ending mass incarceration, and eliminating use of the death penalty. He unseated seven-term incumbent, Robert McCulloch, who had declined to indict a white police officer for the murder of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown that set off the Ferguson racial justice protests.

When Bell took office, St. Louis County’s death-penalty practices exhibited stark racial and geographic disparities. A 2015 study found that a person convicted of homicide in St. Louis County was three times more likely to be executed than if he or she were convicted elsewhere in Missouri and 13 times more likely to be executed than a person convicted in neighboring St. Louis City. The county’s prosecutors also had repeatedly been found to have discriminatorily excluded African Americans from jury service because of their race.

“The death penalty … is racially biased,” Bell wrote, citing data from the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2020 Year End Report that nearly half of those executed during the year were people of color and 76% of the executions involved White victims. “Black folks are more likely to be executed than White folks, and those (of any race) who kill White people are more likely to be executed than those (of any race) who kill Black people,” he said.

“Anyone familiar with these facts who still advocates for the death penalty must implicitly accept that Black lives matter less than White lives,” Bell wrote. “That is not a position that is consistent with the U.S. Constitution that prosecutors swear to uphold.”

Bell questioned the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys’ reliance on deterrence as a justification for capital punishment. Contrary to the prosecutor association’s assertion, Bell said, a U.S. Department of Justice report actually found that the average murder rate among death penalty states was higher than the average murder rate among non-death penalty states. Similarly, a DPIC study of three decades of FBI murder data found that both murder rates and killings of police officers were consistently higher in states with the death penalty than in states without capital punishment and that murder trends were largely indistinguishable between states that long authorized capital punishment, states that had long had no death penalty, and transitional states that had recently repealed or judicially abolished the death penalty.

Bell also challenged the notion that the death penalty provides a service to family members of murder victims. On the contrary, he wrote, capital cases “are especially hard on the families of victims.” Prisoners routinely spend more than a decade and often more than 20 years in prison before execution or exoneration, Bell wrote, “a terribly long time to wait for the closure delivered instantly with the sentence of life in prison without eligibility of parole.” Moreover, because the most likely outcome of a capital case once a death sentence is imposed is that the conviction or death sentence is overturned in the courts, “these cases are more likely to be overturned on appeal than cases with a lesser sentence, forcing the state — and the grieving family — to start all over.”

Bell concluded his op-ed with what he considers the strongest argument against the death penalty, “that our government sometimes kills innocent people in our name.” Citing the DPIC Year End Report released in mid-December, he noted that five more people were exonerated from death row in the U.S. in 2020. With a sixth 2020 exoneration discovered after the initial release of the report, that brought the number of people exonerated from death rows in the U.S. to 173 since 1973. “We will never know how many people killed by our government in our name were innocent of the crimes for which they were executed,” he wrote.

“I campaigned for St. Louis County prosecuting attorney in 2018 with the explicit pledge that I will never seek the death penalty, and I renew that pledge today,” Bell wrote. “Premeditated murder, no matter who commits it, is wrong.”


Wesley Bell, The death penal­ty is racial­ly biased, hyp­o­crit­i­cal and inhu­mane, St. Louis American, December 232020.