End of life bills get Senate Judiciary hearing

Greg Salzer

JEFFERSON CITY — Life and death issues capped the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing April 11.

Two separate bills related to end of life issues, one written in response to the Terri Schiavo case in Florida and one calling for a moratorium and study on the death penalty, were discussed.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Sen. Matt Bartle (R-Jackson County) moved Senate Bill 517, written as a response to Terri Schiavo’s case in Florida, through the committee.

The language of the submitted bill was replaced by a Senate Committee Substitute offered by Bartle.

We essentially created a “hollow, shell” bill with no substantive changes to current law, Bartle said.

Before he brought the bill to a vote in the committee, Bartle asked other committee members if “the bill is sufficiently neutered to pass.”

Without the substitute, the bill would have received further opposition in the committee. By moving the bill out of the committee, Bartle said he is keeping the legislation alive as the end of the current legislative session draws near.

As originally submitted, Senate Bill 517, sponsored by Sen. Charlie Shields (R-St. Joseph), establishes a hierarchal order of responsible persons when end of life decisions need to be made or when other health care decisions need to be made at a time when the patient is incapacitated.

Unless a patient has a previous power-of-attorney for health care specifying a designated surrogate decision maker, the order of priority established in the bill is the patients spouse, an adult child, a parent, a sibling or a close friend.

Although the bill passed the committee, it is likely the bill will only be brought up on the Senate floor if Shields can draft a resolution addressing concerns of those opposed, Bartle said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also took testimony on a bill relevant to the death penalty in Missouri.

The primary purpose of Senate Bill 303 is to commission a study of the death penalty system.

Supporters of the bill are not necessarily for or against the death penalty but recognize there have been people nationwide who have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, sponsoring Sen. Pat Dougherty (D-St. Louis) said.

The commission would consist of ten people including lawmakers, prosecutors, the state public defender and family members of both a murder victim and an individual on death row.

The second part of the bill calls for a moratorium on implementation of the death penalty until Jan. 1, 2008, to allow time for the commission to complete the study.

“If I had to make a choice, I would do the study,” Dougherty said after Sen. Chuck Graham (D-Columbia) asked him to pick between the two parts of the bill.

Elizabeth Undercarlisle testified in support of the bill.

Since 1980, there have been 157 instances when individuals sentenced to death row have been exonerated, Undercarlisle said.

Of these people exonerated, 75 percent involved unreliable witnesses and 25 percent involved confessions either invalid or wrong, she said.

Other witnesses testified about concerns the death penalty is not equally applied given the victim or defendants race.

Geographic and cost also determine how often and when a death penalty is sought.

The commission would examine these variables for inconsistencies.