Killer Campaign

When the Benetton clothing company dared to humanize death-row inmates in a $20 million ad campaign, Attorney General Jay Nixon threw a fit. Then he played right into their hands and sued them.

Both sides are now reluctant to discuss the details of the case because of the pending litigation. But attorneys for the defense question why Nixon has become more closed-mouthed of late. When John Davidson, the attorney for Shulman, tried to depose Nixon, the attorney general's office resisted the motion, claiming Nixon had no personal knowledge of the case. "He gave a number of interviews in which he described his version and sequence of events of how they got into the prison," Davidson says.

Burton Shostak, the attorney for Wasson and Rice, finds Nixon's stance unbelievable. "The attorney general says he has no personal knowledge of any of these facts," Shostak says. "That's filed in court. It's under oath. I find that to be just absolutely amazing. I find it to be almost incredible. Everyone knows what his position is. He's had all of these press conferences and press releases and all this stuff and then says, 'I have no personal knowledge of this.' I find that extremely hard to swallow."

In one way, at least, Nixon has exhibited a lack of knowledge about the case, says attorney Barry Short, who represents Benetton. "The attorney general is trying to figure out what entity he's supposed to be suing and hasn't done that yet," Short says. "The attorney general sued Benetton Inc. There is no Benetton Inc." Benetton is made up of a series of companies scattered from Amsterdam to Treviso, Italy. According to Short, court papers were served on Benetton USA Corp., a subsidiary in New York, which has a total of nine employees. "All Benetton USA does is marketing and consulting services," Short says. "It has nothing to do with the state of Missouri. It has no employees in the state of Missouri, has no employees that were participating in this lawsuit. It has nothing to do with the facts of this case." In addition, Short doubts whether St. Louis County Circuit Court has any jurisdiction over the Italian company.

Defense attorney Burton Shostak: "I suppose that if you're the attorney general seeking higher office, the case is not frivolous."
Defense attorney Burton Shostak: "I suppose that if you're the attorney general seeking higher office, the case is not frivolous."
Attorney General Jay Nixon
Attorney General Jay Nixon

Nixon is most offended by the publicity afforded Jerome Mallett, one of the Missouri inmates given prominence by Benetton. The inmate, whose execution is imminent, stands convicted of the 1985 murder of Missouri Highway Patrolman James Froemsdorf. The attorney general's ire was stirred because Mallett's image not only appeared in the photo essay but on billboards as well. "There certainly wasn't any $20 million ad campaign being run for Sarah Froemsdorf (the officer's widow) or any of her kids," Nixon says.

Mallett's added fame came about this way: After the photo shoot was completed, Rice says, Toscani was so impressed by the death-row portraits that he persuaded Benetton to ante up more money for wider distribution. The plan involved highlighting seven of the 26 inmates in an expanded billboards-and-magazines campaign. Although the inmates received no remuneration for the original photo essay, Benetton maintained that it was compelled to at least offer payment for the expanded campaign to obey applicable laws in Europe. Two of the seven inmates, including Mallett, declined Rice's recommendation and accepted Benetton's $1,000 fee. "At NACDL, we weren't in favor of it," Rice says. "But at the same time, we weren't going to tell Benetton that you can't follow European law by making the offer. Ultimately, it wasn't our decision."

Hatfield, the assistant attorney general, is outraged not about the $1,000 paid to Mallett but, rather, about Mallett's resulting fame. "I met the daughter of Trooper Froemsdorf, and I think it's reprehensible that anyone would put Jerome Mallett on a billboard in New York City; that anyone would put Jerome Mallett in a magazine and make him out to be some kind of sympathetic figure," Hatfield says. "He's not a sympathetic figure -- he's a cold-blooded murderer."

But when asked about the case of Joseph Amrine, another of Benetton's subjects, Hatfield is more reticent. Amrine received the death sentence for killing fellow inmate Gary Barber on the evening of Oct. 17, 1985, in the recreation room at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. Amrine is alleged to have stabbed Barber in the back for spreading rumors about a homosexual act involving the two inmates. The conviction was based on accounts by three other prisoners, who have all since recanted their testimony. Two of the inmates now claim they were coerced by a prison investigator into implicating Amrine.

Kent Gipson, one of Amrine's attorneys, says his client's case is hampered by an all-too-common foible of the court system. "It's the same thing that they always do," says Gipson. "They say that the trial testimony was credible but the recantations are not, which doesn't make any sense logically, because these guys don't have anything to gain by recanting their stories. In fact, they're sticking their necks out for a perjury rap for doing this. Perhaps the best thing we have going for us is there is now a prison guard, who lives in the St. Louis area, who basically says the guy who was the state's witness was the guy who killed (Barber).

Amrine's circumstances point to a fatal flaw in the application of the capital punishment -- the inevitable risk that someone facing the death penalty may be innocent. In a recent letter to The Riverfront Times, Amrine had this to say about life on death row:

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