Joseph Amrine, a black Missouri Death
Row prisoner freed July 28 by the state’s Supreme Court,
says that for his first 13 years awaiting execution, he maintained
his spirits, confident his innocence of the murder of a fellow
prison inmate would be vindicated.
“The low point for me came back in 1998,” he
says, “when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider
my case. The trouble was, I had never prepared myself for
the idea that the system might actually kill me.”
Amrine is now a free man. But along the way, he had to spend
more than four years on the edge of execution, as a team of
death penalty appeals experts, headed by Sean O’Brien
of the University of Missouri Law School, labored mightily
to get his case back into federal or state court.
O’Brien and his team battled tough odds—not
only were they confronted with a Clinton-backed law, the 1996
Effective Death Penalty Act, that bars felons from receiving
more than one round of federal court appeals, but the state’s
high court was stacked with death penalty advocates appointed
by former Gov. John Ashcroft, now the U.S. attorney general.
Still, Amrine had good grounds for a rehearing. Sentenced
to die in 1986 by an all-white jury for the fatal stabbing
of prison inmate Gary Barber while he was finishing up a sentence
for robbery and check-kiting, Amrine had been convicted based
upon the testimony of three jailhouse snitches who all testified
he was the guilty party. This despite the insistence of a
prison guard—normally a more credible witness than fellow
inmates—that one of the three informers was the killer.
Over time, all three accusers recanted their testimony against
him. But state Attorney General Jay Nixon, who was fighting
the appeal, was able to convince a federal judge that the
recantations weren’t credible. The initial thrust of
the attorney general’s argument was that although two
inmates had recanted their testimony, a third had not. Later,
after the last inmate also recanted, Nixon argued that the
issue had already been litigated and that, in any case, inmates
were not to be trusted.
This seemed curious, given that inmate testimony had been
the basis for Amrine’s conviction, but Federal District
Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr., a Bush appointee to the bench,
agreed with Nixon both times and denied Amrine’s appeals.
This past year, however, Amrine’s luck began to change.
His legal team had strong editorial support from the St. Louis
Post Dispatch, other local media, and student activists, but
they were still unable to convince the state’s conservative
Democratic governor, Bob Holden, to issue a pardon. So the
team made a last ditch appeal for reconsideration of his case
to the state’s Supreme Court. By that time, a majority
of the high court’s seven jurists were no longer Ashcroft
In a remarkable hearing earlier this spring in Missouri’s
Supreme Court, Nixon cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s
1993 Herrera ruling that appellants did not have a constitutional
right to a new trial simply based upon evidence of innocence.
The decision in Herrera v. Collins, a Texas murder case upheld
by the high court, states that the only valid grounds for
relief are procedural constitutional errors. Nixon told the
state judges that according to the Herrera standard, even
if Amrine were innocent, he should be executed because he
had had a fair trial.
Amrine still expresses amazement at this topsy-turvy judicial
standard, which even left one Ashcroft-appointed judge dropping
his face into his hands on the bench. “How could they
say that?” he asks, his voice still sounding incredulous.
“Come on, man! This is America, isn’t it? Not
While the three Ashcroft appointees on the bench also raised
doubts about Amrine’s conviction, none was willing to
overturn it. Instead, two of them proposed converting Amrine’s
punishment to life without parole, while a third suggested
another hearing on the case in a lower Missouri state court.
Meanwhile, the court majority, whose members were appointed
by Democratic governors Mel Carnahan and Holden, was having
none of it.
As the majority opinion put it, “This case presents
the rare circumstance in which no credible evidence remains
from the first trial to support the conviction.” With
no witnesses left to testify against Amrine, the original
county prosecutor’s office which had tried him was forced
to drop the case.
Amrine’s defense attorney, O’Brien, says the
case “shows the importance of state courts at a time
that the federal courts are becoming more conservative.”
He says that the state court’s judges “rebelled
at being told by the attorney general that they should have
to follow the federal court’s Herrera ruling.
“It shows how far the pendulum has swung on the courts
at the federal level,” says David Elliot, a spokesperson
for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, “since
we used to rely on them to save people from the state courts.”
But he sees Amrine’s release as a good sign. “It’s
very important that you had a Missouri state supreme court
ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s Herrera ruling and say,
‘Yes, innocence matters.’”
As for Joe Amrine himself, he says that after 26 years in
jail, 17 of them on Death Row, he now feels “confused”
at being back in society. He doesn’t have any career
goals yet, but he says he’s got a plan of action: “to
do some speaking out against the death penalty.”