The Benetton Four

Meet the men who sparked a lawsuit

 Executing criminals has been a tradition of the Missouri criminal-justice system since the state joined the Union in 1821. County sheriffs conducted public hangings until 1937, when Gov. Lloyd C. Stark signed a bill calling for a less brutal method -- execution by lethal gas. From 1938-1965, Missouri put 39 murderers and rapists to death.

A legal debate over capital punishment prompted a moratorium beginning in 1968. In 1972, a split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty as unconstitutional, ruling its application cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. The decree was short-lived. States reacted by passing laws that skirted the federal decision, setting the stage for a rehearing four years later. Faced with mounting political pressure, the high court refused to outlaw the new capital-punishment statutes. Currently 38 states use the death penalty. The top four states -- Texas, Florida, Virginia and Missouri -- account for more than half of the 600 executions that have been carried out since 1977. The United States is the only Western democracy that still executes prisoners. This dubious distinction puts us in the same league with China and the Congo, the two nations that executed more people last year, according to Amnesty International.

More than 40 convicted murderers have been put to death at the Potosi Correctional Center. Missouri now executes death-row inmates by lethal injection, which is considered a more humane method. Last year, the state executed nine men. Eighty more await execution.

Steven W. Parkus, Christopher Simmons, Jerome Mallett and Joseph Amrine
Steven W. Parkus, Christopher Simmons, Jerome Mallett and Joseph Amrine

The following inmates featured in Benetton's "We, on Death Row" campaign await execution:

Steven W. Parkus, 40, convicted of strangling fellow inmate Mark Steffenhagen on Nov. 24, 1985. The two inmates at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City were in a cellblock for prisoners who exhibited suicidal tendencies or who had been threatened with sexual abuse. Parkus is mentally retarded, schizophrenic and has brain damage. He has been institutionalized almost his entire life. Asked by the Benetton interviewer whether he considered himself crazy, Parkus responded: "I don't know what to believe. I just believe what people tell me. What they tell me is I'm wacky."

Christopher Simmons, 24, convicted of murdering Shirley Crook on Sept. 8, 1993, when he was 17 years old. Simmons and a companion broke into Crook's Jefferson County home, abducted her and drove to Castlewood State Park, where they tossed her, alive and bound, into the Meramec River. In his Benetton interview, Simmons talks about maturing behind bars: "Going from being a 17-year-old kid not really caring about anything except maybe drugs to wanting to have a family.... I never thought that I would want to have a family as bad as I want to have a family now." He also says this about society: "The biggest problem is a lot of parents don't know how to talk to their kids. I spend a lot of time thinking about this, why teenagers do the things they do, why they're more susceptible to drugs and other things like that.... They wonder why they're getting juveniles on death row, they wonder about the school shootings.... I see a lot of warning signs, but I don't see anybody picking up on them."

Jerome Mallett, 41, convicted of murdering Missouri Highway Patrolman James M. Froemsdorf on March 2, 1985. The crime took place on the shoulder of Interstate 55 in Perry County, after Froemsdorf had pulled over Mallett's 1973 Ford LTD. When Froemsdorf verified that Mallett was wanted for parole violations and robbery in Texas, he tried to arrest the suspect. Mallett seized the officer's .357 Magnum revolver and shot him to death. In his Benetton interview, Mallett says his troubles started when he was 15: "I started going out in the world. But I got discouraged. I got to thinking that everybody in the world was crooked, there ain't no honest people in the world. What's the point of being honest. So I kind of gave up." Asked whether he felt unlucky, Mallett, a high-school football and track star, reeled off a string of misfortunes: "I was over at a friend's house in Fort Worth and a guy threw some dynamite in the house and blew the house up and I got all burnt up. I was in a nightclub and a guy shot one of my testicles off. I was playing football and me and a guy got into arguing and the guy stabbed me, just missed my heart." He attributes all of his woes to "not thinking."

Joseph Amrine, 43, convicted of killing fellow inmate Gary Barber on Oct. 17, 1985, at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. His conviction was based on the accounts of three other prisoners, who have all since recanted their testimony. Despite the new evidence, Amrine remains on death row, having had his appeal rejected twice in federal court Amrine told the Benetton interviewer: "Yeah, I'm afraid of dying. I don't want to die. I'm scared.... I'm not ready to die." Asked whether he had ever been in love, he said: "All my life. I have a 24-year-old son and I'm still in love with his mom. She's in Kansas City, Mo. I met her when I was 13 years old." Asked whether he misses his mother, who died two years ago, he said: "Don't a day go by I don't think about her.... She was my life. She was all of it."

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