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.

"... I'm at the end of my appeals now and it's really taking its toll on me, mentally. As much as I love living in the past, three, four years, I've come to look forward to my execution cause I'm just tired of all this suffering. As you know, I've been in prison since '77 and on death row 15 years. And I've really been doing it on my own since my mother died.... I spend 23 hours a day in this cell, walking back and forth and wondering why I just don't drop my appeals and get it over with.... As far as the Benetton situation, I don't understand what the big deal is. Jay Nixon (is) just mad cause Benetton people are trying to help guys like me. "

Far from Amrine's prison cell, in the comfortable confines of a Clayton law office, defense attorneys Shostak, Davidson and Short are discussing Nixon's lawsuit. Chandeliers cast a soft light in the conference room and law books line the shelves. The men are impeccably dressed, well mannered, urbane. All of them concur that Nixon is pressing this case for reasons beyond the limited scope of the lawsuit, that the trespass charges are a thin veneer covering the attorney general's political motives. Shostak sums it up best in his answer to whether Nixon's lawsuit is frivolous.

"I suppose that if you're the attorney general seeking higher office, the case is not frivolous. If you are concerned about an expenditure of taxpayers' funds and the value you receive in return for those funds, you could well come to the conclusion that it is frivolous," Shostak says. "The people in the attorney general's office say that this is a simple trespass case. It's like you got a sign on your lawn -- 'Don't walk on the grass' -- and somebody walked on the grass. But the case has far greater implications than that.

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

"This company (Benetton) at least has the unmitigated brass to go out and run a campaign in which they bring to the attention of the public a very important issue as they have year before year," Shostak says. "The attorney general now files a suit because it's not his position. I don't have a problem if he wants to stand up for law enforcement. He has the absolute right to stand up for law enforcement and the Highway Patrol and the family of the murdered highway patrolman. I support that. I don't think anybody would quarrel with that. I think most people would applaud him. He has every right to do it, and I don't see anything wrong with doing that. The question is: Is that a basis for a lawsuit?"

The conversation moves from fine points of the law to broad constitutional issues and then turns to the attorneys' personal views on the death penalty. Two of them have had clients executed. One, a former federal prosecutor, has witnessed an execution. The men recall talking to their clients for the last time late at night by telephone, telling them that their appeals had been exhausted, saying goodbye. Each attorney, in turn, questions the vagaries of the judicial system, the procedural errors, the emotional cost of capital punishment, which can never be quantified. All have different views on the death penalty, under what conditions it should be applied or whether it should be applied at all.

Toward the end of the discussion, Shostak makes what could be considered his closing argument. "Keep in mind that this discussion that you're having with three lawyers who have been involved in this kind of litigation comes about because Benetton put that book out," he says. "They have everybody talking. So the forcefulness of the book speaks for itself."

For more information see, The Benetton Four.

Related Links:
Jay Nixon press release announcing the lawsuit:
Part of the case is built on whether Shulman signed the forms identifying himself falsely as a representative of Newsweek:
Rice represented Benetton as a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He is being sued by Jay Nixon:
Slate magazine story on Missouri's lawsuit against Benetton:
Toscani resigns:
Death Penalty Information Center:
Jay Nixon Biography:

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