Finally Free
Dave Lindorff

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 appointees.

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 Saudi Arabia.”

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.”