Missouri judge faces rare chance to impose death penalty

November 11, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — A southwest Missouri jury’s inability to decide whether a man should be put to death for kidnapping and killing a 10-year-old girl sets up a rare situation where a judge will make that decision.

Circuit Judge Thomas Mountjoy is scheduled to announce Jan. 11 whether Craig Wood will get the death penalty or be sentenced to life in prison. Wood was convicted of kidnapping and killing Hailey Owen in Springfield in February 2014 but the jury announced Monday that it couldn’t reach a unanimous decision on his sentence.

Missouri and Indiana are the only states where a judge can impose a death sentence, while other states follow the federal procedure that defendant is sentenced to life in prison if a jury can’t reach a decision on the death penalty, The Springfield News-Leader reported . But in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only a jury, not a judge, can make that decision.

Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, said a judge-imposed sentence might contradict the Supreme Court ruling. He said if Mountjoy imposes the death penalty, the constitutionality of the process will “unquestionably” be challenged by Wood’s attorneys during the appeal process.

But Wood’s attorney Patrick Berrigan declined to comment on his legal strategy.

Berrigan, a public defender who handles only death penalty cases, said it’s been more than 20 years since he had a case where a judge imposed the death sentence.

Judge Mountjoy did not respond to News-Leader requests asking if he has ever been in this situation before.

Dunham said Missouri jurors have not imposed a death sentence since 2013, but the state’s hung jury procedure allowed judges to sentence a few men to death row in recent years. He did not have statistics on how many times that has happened in Missouri.

“It raises very serious questions about circumventing the will of the public,” Dunham said. “Especially in a state where no jury has sentenced anyone to death for five years.”


Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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