So Long, Joe

While Joe Amrine waits to die, Missouri courts won't admit they may be wrong

Joe Amrine beat and raped other men without remorse.

From an early age, he knew he was going to prison. Born in Kansas City in 1957, the sixth of ten children, Amrine grew up in the projects at 12th and Woodland. When he was nine, his family moved to 29th and Paseo. For many years his father was unemployed. His mother, a seamstress, made enough money to keep the family off welfare but not enough to provide for ten kids. Amrine worked a paper route for a few years, but by junior high he felt he didn't fit in at school and stopped going. Playing hooky led to stealing pants and shirts from downtown stores, then to breaking into houses, looking for clothes, money, whatever.

Two of his older brothers were already in the state penitentiary, and in his late teens Amrine spent a year in the Jackson County jail on a burglary charge. After his release, he soon faced two more burglary charges and a forgery charge. As soon as his mother posted bond, Amrine and some partners tried to rob a Safeway in Independence. The cops grabbed his accomplices, but Amrine got away. He showed up in court the next day, though, so his mother wouldn't forfeit the bond. Police arrested him there, and in 1977 he was sentenced to fifteen years.

Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Poe (top) and Randy Ferguson now say they lied when they fingered Amrine as the murderer.
Jerry Poe (top) and Randy Ferguson now say they lied when they fingered Amrine as the murderer.

At the Missouri State Penitentiary (now called the Jefferson City Correctional Center), the twenty-year-old aspired to be a "regular": strong, not weak; a predator, not prey. He stabbed at least one snitch. He didn't kill the guy, but he says now that he was trying.

"That was just the way it was," Amrine says unapologetically. "Either you did that or you were done to."

Amrine now finds himself on the other side of the equation. To the Missouri Department of Corrections, he is CP 48 -- "CP" for capital punishment. The number means Amrine is the 48th man sentenced to die since Missouri reinstated the death penalty in 1976 (and began executing prisoners in 1989).

Amrine was convicted of murdering another inmate in 1986. He was sent to death row on the testimony of three other inmates. But those men now say he is not guilty and have admitted that they lied out of simple self-interest. Some of the jurors who convicted him now think he's innocent. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers seven states, including Missouri) strongly suggested the same in a 1997 ruling. At a 1998 hearing in Kansas City, however, Judge Fernando Gaitan apparently thought technicalities in the legal process carried more weight than new evidence. Now Amrine awaits his execution date -- or a pardon from Governor Bob Holden -- for a crime Amrine says he didn't commit.

"That's not the way the process is supposed to work. Our system builds in safeguards almost ad nauseam, almost beyond explanation, particularly with a death sentence," says Tom Brown, the prosecuting attorney on the Amrine case, who is now a Cole County circuit judge.

But somehow those safeguards haven't worked for Joe Amrine. Despite appeals that have dutifully chugged along for fifteen years, the sheer weight of that process -- the simple fact that all the steps have been completed -- creates the presumption that the system must have functioned properly.

Amrine's case calls all of that into question.

Joe Amrine and Gary Barber were cellmates twice, once for an uneventful 90 days in 1982 and then again for a month in 1984. The second time, they argued over gambling debts but never came to blows, and they didn't part as enemies. Since then, Amrine hadn't had much contact with Barber, who was serving a fifteen-year sentence for burglary and auto theft.

On the afternoon of October 18, 1985, both men were in the rec room of the supermax unit, the highest-security section of the state penitentiary. It was a small space, about half the size of a basketball court, in which 90 inmates were packed for a few hours a day, three days a week. Around 2:25 p.m., someone stabbed Barber in the back with a metal rod broken off a paint roller -- nine-and-a-quarter inches long, sharpened to a point and covered with white and green paint.

Amrine says he was playing poker and didn't see the stabbing and recalls that a few minutes later, he saw prison guards take inmate Terry Russell away for questioning. When guards came to interview him later that day, Amrine says, he wasn't surprised -- he and Russell were friends, so he figured investigators would come calling for him, too. Amrine also knew that his behavior in the past had not endeared him to prison administrators -- they had sent him to solitary confinement for raping and stabbing other inmates but had never been able to gather enough evidence to charge him with anything.

He told them he didn't kill Barber. He says George Brooks, leader of a team of prison investigators who handle everything from disciplinary matters to murders, gave him the chance to pin the murder on Russell, but Amrine told them he didn't know who did it. He figured that was that.

What he didn't know was that Brooks and his team had also given Russell the chance to pin the murder on Amrine.

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