On Feb. 25, 2002, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon asked the Missouri Supreme Court to set an execution date for Vernon Brown, who had run out of appeals in the murder of a 9-year-old girl 8 years ago. Two years and eight months later, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nixon awaits a response. The petition naming Brown is the oldest of six such requests that are pending before the court. Five have been before the court for at least 15 months. Since February 2002, when Gov. Bob Holden’s appointment of Richard Teitelman created a 4-3 Democratically appointed majority on the court, the Supreme Court has allowed five executions to proceed. The last was carried out almost one year ago.
The attorney general asks the court to set an execution date when all appeals courts have affirmed a death sentence. Before 2002, the court routinely set an execution date within a few weeks of receiving an attorney general’s petition. “These cases are just languishing at the state Supreme Court,” Nixon said. “Never before have I been confronted by a situation in which the court refuses to act on matters of this importance. It’s very difficult to explain it to the victims’ families.” Much has been written – and speculated upon – concerning the sentiments of the Missouri Supreme Court since the appointment of Teitelman, a former legal aid lawyer from St. Louis. His arrival tipped the court’s balance to a 4-3 majority of judges appointed by two Democratic governors, the late Mel Carnahan or Holden. Until then, the majority consisted of judges appointed by John Ashcroft, who served as governor from 1985 to 1993. On Sept. 20, the Democratic-appointed majority on the court grew when Holden appointed Mary Rhodes Russell, a member of the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis, to replace Duane Benton, whom Ashcroft had put on the court in 1991. Since 2002, the Missouri court has issued several high-profile split decisions overturning death sentences. In August 2003, it moved ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling 4-3 that executing defendants who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional.