Death penalty prosecutions in Missouri illustrate the arbitrariness that is applied county by county across the country in capital cases. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, whose jurisdiction covers the city, has never taken a capital case to trial since her election in 2001. But Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, whose jurisdiction is the suburban county, has won death sentences against 10 people since 2000, despite the fact that the county has only one-fourth as many murders as the city. The two longtime Democrats have adjacent jurisdictions with one urban and one more rural. Their decisions fit into a pattern around the country: urban prosecutors are less likely than their suburban or rural counterparts to go after death sentences. Hence, what side of the county line a crime is committed on can be a matter of life and death.
The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s predecessor, Dee Joyce Hayes, acknowledged that after 20 years working as a prosecutor and circuit attorney, she found that death sentences are arbitrary. “I never saw a way that you could make the death penalty consistent across jurisdictions, juries, counties, and prosecutors,” she said. Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice League Foundation, a California victims’ rights advocacy group , said, “I’ve got to believe in some places that money becomes a problem. If it’s going to clean out the budget, there may be some pressure not to go for the death sentence.”