A recent Arizona Legal Studies paper on murder cases in Missouri found both geographical and racial disparities in the application of the death penalty. “Life and Death Decisions: Prosecutorial Discretion and Capital Punishment in Missouri,” by Katherine Barnes of Arizona University Law School, and David Sloss and Stephen Thaman of St. Louis Univeristy Law School, studied 1046 cases of intentional homicide in Missouri to determine geographical and racial effects in the rates at which prosecutors seek the death penalty. With respect to race, the researchers found that “defendants who kill white victims [were] sentenced to death more often than those who kill black victims.” Regarding geographical differences, the study concluded, “The data show that prosecutorial decisions vary widely across counties.”

The researchers found that at least 76% of the cases they studied were death-eligible, but prosecutors only sought death in 5% of the cases. Prosecutors in different counties exercise their discretion very differently, which leads to racial and significant geographical variations in capital sentencing across the state. The researchers stated:

For example, St. Louis City and Jackson County (Kansas City) are the two largest jurisdictions in Missouri in terms of the number of homicide prosecutions. Prosecutors in St. Louis City charged (first-degree murder) M1 in 85.4 percent of their cases. In contrast, prosecutors in Jackson County charged (first-degree murder) M1 in only 28.3 percent of their cases. Because cases charged as (second degree) M2 are not eligible for capital punishment, Jackson County prosecutors eliminated more than seventy percent of their cases from the class of death-eligible offenses by charging the cases as (second degree) M2 instead of (first degree) M1. In contrast, the initial charging decisions of St. Louis City prosecutors left the death penalty “on the table” in more than 85 percent of their cases.

The researchers concluded that “The preceding analysis suggests that the defendants who are sentenced to death in Missouri are not necessarily the most culpable, or those who commit the most serious crimes. Instead, the defendants who are sentenced to death are disproportionately those who commit their crimes in counties where prosecutors make aggressive use of capital punishment.” They recommend that Missouri further study its death penalty system so that the state can implement changes in the district attorney system to better guide prosecutors and to also reform, change, or abandon certain statutory aggravating factors.
(“Life and Death Decisions: Prosecutorial Discretion and Capital Punishment in Missouri,” by Katherine Barnes, David Sloss and Stephen Thaman, Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 08-03, March 2008). See Studies and Arbitrariness.