Mo. inmate says judges shouldn’t issue death sentences

A man awaiting sentencing in the killing of a Missouri police officer questions the constitutionality of a state law that allows judges to hand down the death sentence.

A jury in June convicted 45-year-old Ian McCarthy of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of Clinton police officer Gary Lee Michael Jr. during a traffic stop in 2017. After days of deliberation, the jury told the judge they did not disagree the state’s only two penalties for first-degree murder: life imprisonment without parole or death.

Missouri and Indiana are the only active capital punishment states where judges can sentence people to death. In Montana, judges can also hand down death sentences, but no one has been executed there since 2006.

McCarthy’s attorneys filed a motion last week asking a Jackson County judge to declare the state’s law unconstitutional and sentence McCarthy to life in prison. Judge Marco Roldan will review the application at Friday’s sentencing hearing.

The motion calls Missouri “a clear outlier” and finds that the law violates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

“Unanimous jury approval is necessary to ensure that death sentences are reliably handed down to the most guilty defendants and reflect the judgment of the community,” it said.

Henry County Prosecutor LaChrisha Gray declined to comment on the constitutional issue Wednesday, but said she still seeks the death penalty.

“We will ask the court to enter that sentence,” Gray said.

Courts have made differing decisions about whether death sentences should be decided by a jury alone.

In 2002, the US Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of at least 150 convicted murderers, ruling that juries, not judges, should make such life-or-death decisions.

But since then, some executions have been carried out despite judgments by the bench. Among those executed was Missouri inmate Amber McLaughlin, whose execution in January is believed to be the first of a transgender woman in the United States

McLaughlin was convicted of first-degree murder for killing a St. Louis-area woman in 2006. A judge sentenced McLaughlin to death after the jury deadlocked on the verdict.

In another case, the Missouri Supreme Court in 2019 upheld the verdict for Craig Wood, who was sentenced to death by a judge for the 2014 kidnapping, rape, and killing of a 10-year-old girl. Wood remains on death row and no execution date has been set.

On August 6, 2017, McCarthy fatally shot 37-year-old Michael with a high-powered rifle during a traffic stop in Clinton, about 75 miles (121 kilometers) southeast of Kansas City. McCarthy was captured two days later in rural Henry County.

The court filing filed on McCarthy’s behalf said that McCarthy should have been sentenced to life in prison without parole because the jury could not unanimously agree on a verdict. Mo. inmate says judges shouldn’t issue death sentences

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