Citing Anti-Gay Bias, ACLU Asks Governor to Spare Missouri Man Set for Execution

February 5, 2001 12:00 am

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JEFFERSON CITY, MO — The American Civil Liberties Union today asked Governor Bob Holden to grant clemency to Stanley Lingar, who is set to be executed here at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday morning. In a letter to Holden today and in earlier legal briefs in the case, the ACLU cited clear anti-gay bias in Lingar’s trial and sentencing.

Lingar’s attorneys filed a last-minute appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court this morning, seeking to overturn the death sentence that was handed down nearly 15 years ago. Lingar and his companion, David Smith, were convicted of killing a 16-year-old in 1985. In exchange for testifying against Lingar, Smith was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

During the sentencing phase of his trial, Lingar’s sexual orientation was the only fact that the prosecution put before jurors to help them decide whether he should live or die.

“Shockingly, the prosecution said being gay was a ‘character’ flaw that should be taken into account in imposing the death penalty,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “The state said Stanley Lingar should be put to death because he is gay. It’s difficult to imagine a more stark example of state-sanctioned homophobia.”

In 1997, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit to overturn Lingar’s death sentence because his constitutional rights were violated by the prosecution’s focus on his sexual orientation.

Lingar’s is the first execution scheduled under Holden, who became governor late last year when Mel Carnahan died while campaigning for the U.S. Senate. Under Missouri law, Holden has the power to grant clemency and commute a death sentence to life in prison without parole – which the ACLU asked him to do today.

In recent years, the ACLU has been involved in a number of cases where sexual orientation was a factor in sentencing people to death. Frequently — as was the case recently in Texas and Oklahoma — governors cite state laws and policies that prevent them from commuting a death sentence.

“In this case, there’s nothing preventing Governor Holden from stepping in,” Coles said. “In fact, having sworn to uphold the state’s laws and apply them equally, he is obligated to do the right thing and correct this injustice by keeping Stanley Lingar in prison for life.”

The ACLU’s letter follows.

****Governor Bob Holden
Missouri Capitol Building, Room 216
POB 720
Jefferson City, MO 652201-0720

By Fax: 573-751-1495

Re: Stanley D. Lingar

Dear Governor Holden:

We ask that you grant clemency to Stanley Lingar and commute his death sentence to life. Mr. Lingar is scheduled for execution on February 7, 2001. We, like others, are very concerned that inexperienced and ineffective legal representation denied Mr. Lingar a fair opportunity to present his case for a sentence other than death. However, we focus here on the substantial risk that unconstitutional bias based on sexual orientation ultimately influenced the sentence in his case. That risk is acute here because Mr. Lingar’s sexual orientation was the only fact put before the jury at the penalty phase of the case.

In his opening statement at the penalty phase of the trial the prosecutor told the jury that “[t] he only evidence we’ll have to offer you at this stage, we’ll recall David Smith who will basically tell you number one, from the period when he first moved in with Stanley Lingar in April 1984 until the time of this homicide that there was a homosexual relationship that existed between the two of them …”

When Mr. Lingar’s lawyer objected, the prosecutor made two arguments – one implausible, and the other unacceptable. First, he argued that the evidence of Lingar’s sexual orientation would prove that the murder was committed to prevent the victim from disclosing the secret nature of the relationship between Lingar and co-defendant Smith. Yet the prosecutor introduced no evidence to support his claim that the relationship was in fact secret or that the murder occurred to protect any secret. Second, and far more disturbing, the prosecutor advanced the view that Lingar’s sexual orientation was evidence of “character,” which ought to be taken into account in deciding whether he should be put to death.

The admission of evidence of Mr. Lingar’s sexual orientation and relationship with Mr. Smith violated both the Equal Protection and due process provisions of the Constitution. In Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court held unambiguously that the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment does not permit any adverse action by the government based on animus towards lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.

The principle in Romer applies with equal force here. It is an unfortunate but a very real fact of life in the United States today that many Americans hold deep prejudices against lesbians and gay men. Recognizing these widespread prejudices, courts have routinely held that evidence that a criminal defendant is gay has a highly prejudicial impact on jurors and should be excluded. The State’s assertion that being gay is a “character” flaw which should be taken into account in imposing the death penalty is nothing short of appalling.

It’s true that other evidence bearing on the sentence was presented during the guilt phase of Mr. Lingar’s trial — but when information this explosive is the only evidence introduced in the formal penalty phase, one can’t say that it did not influence the result. Moreover, no corrective measures were taken to diffuse the impact of putting Mr. Lingar’s sexual orientation in front of the jury. The jurors were never asked how they felt about gay people.

As Governor, you have the awesome responsibility of ensuring not only that death is the appropriate punishment but also that the process by which the sentence was determined was as fair and free from bias as is humanly possible. The process that we have just described was not. While we may differ on the ultimate question of the utility and morality of capital punishment, we all can agree that a person’s sexual orientation should play no role in the decision to sentence one to death.

We respectfully urge you to grant clemency to Mr. Lingar in this case.


Diann Rust-Tierney, Director
ACLU Capital Punishment Project

Matt Coles, Director
ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project

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