A man wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years for murder who was profiled in John Grisham's nonfiction best seller "The Innocent Man" urged lawmakers Thursday to support a three-year death penalty moratorium in Missouri.
Dennis Fritz, the "co-conspirator" in Grisham's 2006 book, told the House's Crime Prevention and Public Safety committee Tuesday that capital punishment should be suspended until the state can review the cases of inmates sitting on death row to ensure the convictions were proper and accurate.
"There are many, many other people out there -- it's my opinion -- on death row that are innocent," said Fritz, , who was in an Oklahoma prison from 1987 to 1999 serving time for the rape and murder of a cocktail waitress he did not commit.
The committee heard testimony about House Bill 1870. If passed into law, it would impose a moratorium on all executions in Missouri until Jan. 1, 2012 and establish a commission to study the court system's use of the death penalty.
The wife of a Columbia man murdered in Christian County in 2005 also testified, saying she "sits on the fence" as to whether the man accused of torturing her husband and injecting him with a lethal dose of cocaine should get his own lethal injection.
"Most of the time I don't think the state should be in the business of killing its citizens," said Ginger Masters, 50, the widow of David Masters, a former Macon County prosecutor.
"But then comes along some particularly heinous murder, and I think, 'You know, that person may really deserve to die for that crime.'"
The trial of Thomas R. Naumann, 49, in Masters' slaying has been postponed until October. His alleged accomplice, Crystal D. Broyles, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is serving 13 years for the March 2005 murder, Ginger Masters said.
Since her husband's murder, Masters said she's researched the inconsistencies in jury pools of death penalty cases and remains undecided. However, the Christian County prosecutor, Ron Cleek, has contended Naumann should get the death penalty.
There are currently 44 people on death row, a process that can often take a decade or longer to complete, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City.
Under Deeken's bill, the death penalty commission would include two members of the Senate; two members of the House; a murder victim's family member; a family member of a person on death row; the attorney general; the state public defender; a defense attorney; and a prosecutor appointed by The Missouri Bar. Once formed, the commission would hire an executive director, Deeken said.
The commission would study the current slate of prisoners facing execution, plus all other cases in which it was sought dating back to 1977.
Deeken said it would be charged with determining whether defendants sentenced to death are in fact guilty of first-degree murder; whether defendants were provided adequate counsel; and whether prosecutors who seek the death penalty do it consistently across the state.
The more controversial component would include studying whether race plays a role in determining which defendants are sentenced to death.
"People don't want to always admit it, but mistakes do happen," he said.
Deeken said he supports capital punishment. "I want to make sure that the person, regardless of race, is the right person (being executed)."
Fritz and his co-defendant, Ron Williamson, the principal character of Grisham's book, were eventually exonerated in 1999 and the actual perpetrator was convicted shortly thereafter.
Playing what he described as "devil's advocate," Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, asked Fritz whether he thought the man who committed the crime that sent him to prison for 12 years should be executed.
"No," Fritz responded, adding that life in prison is an ample sentence.
Kevin Green, 49, a Jefferson City resident, agreed. He served 16 years in a California prison for the death of his unborn daughter until DNA and a confession from the killer exonerated him in 1996.
The man who attacked his near-term pregnant wife and killed their unborn daughter is awaiting death row in California, but Green doesn't want him executed.
"I want the man who killed my daughter ... to suffer until it's God's decision when he goes," Green said. "I know what that's like and I want him to experience it forever."
While no vote was taken, Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said the bill deserves a debate on the House floor because blacks are statistically executed more often than other races.
State Reps. Charlie Norr and Sara Lampe, both Springfield Democrats, are co-sponsors of the legislation, which has 55 other co-sponsors. Representatives from the Missouri Catholic Conference and the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also voiced their organization's support of a moratorium.
"Under the current system, we definitely need to make sure we have our facts straight before we keep killing people," Norr said.
Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, said current law already makes it difficult for a jury to sentence a murderer to death.
"My sense is this is a vehicle to totally do away with the death penalty," Lipke said.
Source; Chad Livengood • News-Leader • April 2, 2008
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