False Witness

No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.

Dave Lindorff

A portrait of Yasser Arafat lies among the ruins of a Palestinian radio and television station after it was torn down by the Israeli army.
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 the gallows.

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 inmates.

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 exists.

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.
The state Attorney Generals Office, which has consistently fought Amrines appeals, has not taken a position on his clemency position, saying it is up to the governor to decide what to do. Spokesman Scott Holste says, We would only comment on his claim if the governor asked for our opinion.
There is a movement developing in support of Amrine among students at local colleges, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has editorialized against his execution.

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.

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Dave Lindorff, an In These Times contributing editor, is the author of This Can’t Be Happening: Resisting the Disintegration of American Democracy. His work can be found at This Can’t Be Happening.
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