Fueling the Flames
Labor and greens must join forces to stop Bushs assault on the planet.
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
A New Detente?
The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs.
Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
Disasters in Waiting
BOOKS: Ahmed Rashid on more impending Jihad.
Play It Again, Sam
MUSIC: How multiple reissues keep record labels flush.
FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
One of the arguments raised against the death penalty is that, when prosecutors
succeed in executing a person convicted of murder, they lose any interest in
finding out later that they might be wrong. Yet if they are wrong, the actual
killer remains at large.
That may be exactly what is about to happen in the case of Joseph Amrine, a
man who is facing execution on Missouris Death Row for killing a fellow
prison inmate 17 years ago, though none of the evidence used to convict him
in the original case remains.
Amrine is in Potosi Correctional Center awaiting a decision on an appeal for
clemency from Missouri state Gov. Bob Holden. Holden, a conservative Democrat,
has been signing death warrants and watching the state execute prisoners during
his term at a pace of about one execution per month, making him one of the more
ardent executioners in the nation. After the Supreme Court declined to review
his case last year, a pardon from Holden is Amrines last hope to avoid
Amrine, jailed on a check-kiting conviction in early 1985, says he was just
playing cards in the prisons recreation room when another inmate, Gary
Barber, was stabbed to death in October 1985. His story is supported by the
testimony of several other witnesses. A prison guard saw another man, Terry
Russell, run from the scene of the crime, chased by Barber, who died shortly
after the incident. Russell was then identified by the guard and taken into
custody. But under interrogation, Russell accused Amrine of the murder. And
though Russell had a clear motive for the crimehe and Barber had just
been released from segregated detention for fighting a week earlierAmrine
was charged with the murder based upon the testimony of Russell and two other
Amrines 1986 trial was notable for the poor defense offered by Julian
Ossman, a Cole County public defender who has six clients currently sitting
on Missouris Death Row. Two of Ossmans death penalty cases, both
of which he lost, have been overturned by federal courts for ineffective counsel.
(Efforts to reach Ossman by phone were unsuccessful.)
Amrines attorney and even jurors who sat through the case say he failed
to call the jurys attention to conflicts between the stories of the three
prosecution witnesses. One witness, who was ready to testify at the trial that
he had seen Russell slay Barber, stood shackled in the hall waiting to be called
by Ossman. For unknown reasons, he was never brought into court. Although other
inmate witnesses testified that Amrine had been with them at the card table
the whole time, the jury believed the testimony of the three inmates who accused
him, and Amrine was convicted and sentenced to death.
Over the past 17 years, the three prosecution eyewitnesses have recanted their
testimony, saying they were pressured to lie and promised protection by prison
authorities. But none of those retractions have been enough to grant Amrine
a new trial.
One witness against Amrine, Randall Ferguson, says he began writing letters
to authorities trying to recant his testimony immediately after the trial. In
1995, Russell filed an affidavit claiming he lied in accusing Amrine. On appeal,
however, federal Judge Fernando Gaitan rejected the first two recantations,
noting that the third witness against Amrine, Jerry Poe, had not recanted his
testimony. Because there was still a witness standing by his original accusation,
the judge ruled, Amrines claim of innocence had to be denied.
The case might have ended there, but later Poe, too, recanted his testimony.
At that point, the same federal judge rejected the recantations of all three,
saying that as prison inmates they were not credible. Yet as Amrines lead
attorney Sean OBrien notes in his pardon petition to the governor, Those
factors apply with equal or greater force to the testimony they gave against
Amrine at his trial.
Ordinarily, courts have held that the testimony of prison snitches should be
taken with a high degree of skepticism.
In this case, though the only evidence linking Amrine to the prison slaying
was the testimony of three snitches, that testimony at trial is being taken
so seriously by the courts that it outweighs their recantation of that testimonysurely
a peculiar irony. And yet the end result is that, failing a commutation or pardon
by the governor, Amrine is going to die as a result of testimony that no longer
At least three of the jurors who sat on that case, including the jury foreman,
have stated publicly that they believe Amrine was falsely convicted and that
he should be released from prison or granted a new trial. At a minimum
he deserves a new trial, says Larry Hildebrand, a 50-year-old computer
programmer and analyst. All the witnesses are saying something different
now, and if theyd been saying what theyre saying now, I never would
have voted to convict him.
Richard Callahan, the current head of the Cole County prosecutors office
that originally prosecuted Amrine, says his policy is not to prosecute capital
cases at all in which the only witnesses are jailhouse snitches. He is deeply
troubled that all of Amrines accusers have since recanted.
Within a year of his conviction, Amrines lawyer OBrien reports,
Russell had killed another man. If we hadnt convicted Amrine,
Hildebrand suggests, maybe theyd have gone back and charged Russell
with the crime, and he wouldnt have been able to kill again.