Prosecutors wield enormous power in charging decisions; some prosecutors are more aggressive in seeking a death sentence than others. This exercise in prosecutorial discretion leads to a geographic disparity between jurisdictions in the application of capital punishment.
The Louisville Courier-Journal reports, "Death penalty policy changes for Jefferson County," by Jason Riley. Here's the beginning:
For more than 15 years, the policy in the Jefferson County prosecutor’s office was fairly simple: Seek the death penalty in every murder case that qualified for it, unless there was a compelling reason not to.
Now, that policy — which defense attorneys argued was often a waste of time and money — is changing.
Newly elected Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine said he is implementing a more “intense selection” process and additional criteria for choosing capital cases — including the likelihood of jurors recommending the death sentence, given the evidence in the case.
Wine said he also may try something done in federal court in which prosecutors meet first with defense attorneys who want to present evidence and mitigating factors as to why they shouldn’t seek the death penalty.
“I feel like I’m given a certain amount of discretion, and I plan to exercise that discretion,” Wine said in an interview.
Attorneys who for years have prepared defenses for death-penalty cases only to see the charges reduced before trial welcome the shift.
“You ought to make sure the guy deserves it and you think there is a reasonable chance the jury would actually do it,” said public defender Mike Lemke, noting that it has been years since a Jefferson Circuit Court jury has handed down the sentence.
"Prosecutor: Death penalty system unfair to victims," is the AP report, via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Landis Shippert, of Platte City, thinks O'Dell should die for his crimes, but he said the prospect of spending the next several years in courtrooms listening to graphic details of his daughter's brutal slaying was too much for his family to bear.
"I'm a very faithful person and the Bible tells us we have to forgive," Shippert said. "One day I wanted to hate him, but I just can't. His family has lost a member, too."
Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd said he accepted O'Dell's offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence to spare the Shippert family of the continued nightmare of a capital murder trial. He said the state's death penalty process "puts victims' families in a tragic dilemma."
Zahnd, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the organization is looking for ways to streamline the system and cut out some of the appeals — especially in cases like O'Dell's in which the defendant confessed and was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt.
He said a bill filed by state Sen. Joe Keaveny, a St. Louis Democrat, to address costs of death penalty cases could open the door for a broader discussion of the state's capital punishment system.
Keaveny, a death penalty opponent, agreed that if his bill is approved, the results of an audit could lead to further discourse.
"If it's as expensive as I think it is, I would hope it sparks a much broader debate on the viability of the death penalty," Keaveny said. "We need to take some of the emotion out of criminal prosecutions, and in my mind, the death penalty is strictly driven by emotion.