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Dispatch From a Missouri Execution: A Microcosm of the US Death Penalty Fight

The state-sponsored execution of Brian Dorsey on April 9 marked the fifth death row killing in the US this year.

Michelle Smith (on right), co-director of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty, just before the prayer vigil for Brian Dorsey at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, moments before he was executed on April 9, 2024.

Part of the Series

The state-sponsored execution of 52-year-old Brian Dorsey on Tuesday evening in Bonne Terre, Missouri, marked the fifth such execution to take place in the U.S. this year, as right-wing activists across the nation push hard to expand the use of the death penalty.

Two more executions are already scheduled to take place in Missouri this year, despite a multipronged anti-death-penalty campaign, including prisoner support; focused bipartisan legislative initiatives starting with repeal; exoneration and clemency campaigns; and pressuring officials to reopen problematic cases tried by known racially biased prosecutors.

The wider national conflict between those who wish to abolish the death penalty and those who support it was apparent Tuesday evening outside the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center (ERDCC).

On one side, 78 people — including public defenders, death penalty abolition advocates and two busloads of clergy and parishioners from the St. Louis Catholic archdiocese — held a prayerful vigil. Getting there entailed the same hour-long trek they’d made four times for the same purpose in 2023.

On the other side were 17 people looking forward to the last breath of Dorsey, some wearing “Wish You Were Here” tee-shirts meant to evoke the memory of Dorsey’s cousin Sarah Bonnie, and her husband, Benjamin Bonnie, who he’d killed in 2006 while in a drug-induced psychosis, orphaning their 4-year-old daughter. As the moment of execution approached, they counted down from 10, cheering at zero. One man shouted, “Burn in hell, Brian Dorsey. Burn in hell.”

Under wind-whipped skies only the occasional rain drop fell on those gathered in a cordoned-off protest zone to bear witness to the execution. Across the road, horses, their manes streaming as they galloped, thundered in a corral. A lawn sprouting dandelions gone to seed separated the protest area from the entrance to the prison in southeastern Missouri, a region dense with carceral institutions.

People linger at the bleak scene after the competing send-offs: an anti-execution prayer vigil and a pro-execution “watch party.”

Absent were the 72 correctional officers from nearby Potosi Correctional Center who’d written to Gov. Mike Parson on Dorsey’s behalf urging clemency, telling the governor he was a changed man. But Parson, unmoved by their plea, called capital punishment an “appropriate” sentence and rejected on Monday Dorsey’s final petition asking for life in prison. Around noon on Tuesday, Dorsey’s fate was sealed when the U.S. Supreme Court, with no dissenting votes, declined to intervene. The state of Missouri ended his life by an injection of pentobarbital at 6:11 p.m., as scheduled, making Dorsey the tenth person to be put to death under Parson’s watch since he took office in 2018.

“Brian Dorsey is kind, gentle, hardworking and humble. He has spent every day of the past 18 years trying to make up for the single act of violence,” said a member of Dorsey’s legal team, attorney Kirk Henderson, in a statement. “Executing Brian Dorsey is a pointless cruelty, an exercise of the State’s power that serves no legitimate penological purpose. … We will miss his smile and bear hugs.”

The governor’s intransigence shouldn’t’t take away from noting that prison staff had really put themselves on the line by showing “a little bit too much empathy,” Michelle Smith, co-director since 2020 of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty (MADP), told Truthout.

“They wouldn’t necessarily get fired,” she explained, “but in their work environment, it’s frowned upon to like a person who’s incarcerated to the point where you’re publicly coming out and saying, ‘This person is a decent person.’ In Missouri, when we center humanizing people, things can change.”

She points to the fact that some years ago, the Missouri Department of Corrections had to relocate the executions from Potosi, where death row prisoners are housed among the general population, to ERDCC, because guards who spent their working lives among the men slated for execution stopped volunteering for the execution teams.

“Of course, the system had to do what it had to do to distance itself. So they bring them here, because these officers don’t know the person; they just got here two days ago,” Smith said.

High school students from the Roman
Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis offer readings in recognition of the life and humanity of Brian Dorsey, a popular prison barber whose life was taken by the state of Missouri.

The annual salary for corrections officers in the Missouri Department of Corrections starts at $28,872, and there aren’t many official perks accompanying the job. But there is one: a barber is made available for wardens, chaplains and staff haircuts, and for the last 11 years, Dorsey was theirs.

“It’s an intimate situation,” Smith noted. “In talking, you get to know a person — who they are, what they’re like. It was his role, a very coveted prison job, that prompted them to speak up for him.”

Smith, who is African American, says MADP is advocating for a renewed scrutiny, in particular of death sentences for Black men, who are overrepresented in Missouri’s carceral system.

“When racism really comes into play in these issues, honestly, is about who is put on death row. Our previous prosecutor in St. Louis County, Robert McCullough, prosecuted Black people exponentially more for death penalty cases,” she said.

Governor Parson will term out this year, and a new governor will be elected.

“We’re hopeful that in the future we will have a governor that at the very least does not sign the orders. We’re hoping the next governor is more merciful,” Smith said. “In the last several years, they have been killing everybody. The killings have a ripple effect of pain, like a stone thrown in a pool of water.”

Brian Dorsey contemplated and acknowledged this fact in his final written statement in which he extended consolation and conciliation, even to those who condemned him.

To all of the family and loved ones I share with Sarah and to all of the surviving family and loved ones of Ben, I am totally, deeply, overwhelmingly sorry. Words cannot hold the just weight of my guilt and shame. I still love you. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I am sorry I hurt them and you.

To my family, friends, and all of those that tried to prevent this, I love you! I am grateful for you. I have peace in my heart in large part because of you and I thank you. To all those on ALL sides of this sentence, I carry no ill will or anger, only acceptance and understanding.

MAPD’s position is that thanks to multiple coalitions with a diverse set of advocates working together on these issues, the possibilities for abolishing the death penalty in Missouri are growing. To get there, they remain dedicated to bipartisanship. They communicate with policymakers and the public about the costs associated with maintaining capital punishment, the frequency of mistaken executions, ways to address disturbing and entrenched issues of racial inequity, the needless prolonged emotional pain to those directly impacted, and the cruelty of the killing processes themselves, all the while emphasizing that state-sanctioned executions don’t even deter crime.