So Long, Joe

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

Russell, who was serving time for burglary, had a good reason to turn against Amrine: Russell was due to be released in 60 days but was now facing charges for murdering Barber. Ten days before the murder, Russell and Barber had fought, and both had been sent to solitary. When Brooks questioned Russell shortly after the murder, Brooks said John Noble, a guard, had seen Barber chasing Russell after Barber had been stabbed. Russell's interrogators also told him that another inmate had seen him kill Barber. Investigators knew about Russell's fight with Barber, and they told him he was going to be charged with the murder. They read him his rights. At the same time, Russell now says, Brooks encouraged him to blame Amrine. So he did.

Five hours after the killing, Russell gave a statement claiming that he hadn't seen the murder. He said he'd left the rec room to get aspirin and the last thing he saw was Barber seated at a poker table and Amrine pacing, clutching a red handkerchief that he usually wore on his head. When he got back, Barber was dead and Amrine said he had killed Barber.

The second witness who testified against Amrine was Jerry Poe, who was in prison for burglary and escape. Barber's death had scared him. Only twenty, he was afraid of the men around him. He wanted guards to keep him safe; investigators wanted him to tell them what had happened. "All I wanted was to check in for a while until things cooled down, but Brooks wanted me to say things I hadn't seen and didn't know about," Poe testified in a hearing years after Amrine's conviction. "I kept telling them that I was playing cards and was turned the wrong way to see what went down. They kept trying to put words in my mouth like I had seen what happened."

Terry Russell also accused Amrine. Then he took it back.
Jay Thornton
Terry Russell also accused Amrine. Then he took it back.
Joe Amrine doesn't have high hopes of getting 
Governor Holden's help: "I wish he would give me a 
pardon, but I'm a realist."
Jennifer Silverberg
Joe Amrine doesn't have high hopes of getting Governor Holden's help: "I wish he would give me a pardon, but I'm a realist."

After prison officials sent Poe, under protective custody, to the nearby Cole County Jail, suddenly it was too late for him to back out. "Brooks told me if I didn't say what they wanted me to they would put me back in supermax and pass the word that I'd made a statement anyway," he later testified. "I was already afraid for my life, so I thought I had no choice. I knew these cops were serious, and I was afraid."

On October 21, 1985, Poe offered investigators a written account of what he had supposedly seen: Barber was at the punching bag when Amrine sneaked up on him from behind, pulled the rod from his waistband and thrust it into Barber's back, under his left shoulder blade. He then pulled the rod out of Barber, turned and ran back toward a group of people at the other end of the room.

The third witness against Amrine was Randy Ferguson, who in 1985 was a skinny nineteen-year-old from St. Joseph serving a five-year sentence for delivering marijuana and a one-year sentence for second-degree burglary. Ferguson had quickly come under the heel of an inmate named Clifford Valentine, who repeatedly forced Ferguson to have sex with him in exchange for protection. If Ferguson refused, he got his ass kicked.

For months, investigators grilled Ferguson about what he'd seen the day of the murder. And for months Ferguson said he hadn't seen anything. As late as April 8, 1986, just before Amrine's trial, Ferguson told Brooks he hadn't seen Amrine or anyone else stab Barber.

In depositions conducted a few years later, Brooks explained why he had continued to work over Ferguson: "From my professional opinion ... Ferguson was very easily coerced. In other words, his particular situation inside the penitentiary was what a person told him to do. And the person that I would refer to would be what I consider to be his homosexual partner or 'daddy,' if you want to refer to it in that name. As long as he's under his influence, he's going to do what he says."

By April 1986, Brooks had put Ferguson under his influence. After he denied seeing the murder, Ferguson later testified, Brooks turned off the tape recorder and asked whether Ferguson would change his story in return for a transfer to the Cole County Jail. Investigators knew what was happening to Ferguson. "I was having a hard time living with myself," Ferguson later testified. "It was -- oh, it was real important, because it hurt, you know, so much. Not just physically to be raped, but inside, you know. So it was real important. I just couldn't take it no more."

Brooks found other pressure points. According to Ferguson's testimony, Brooks warned Ferguson he might be charged with Barber's murder if he didn't cooperate -- at the least, Brooks and other prison officials would make sure word got out that he was a snitch. Ferguson knew snitches got stabbed or set on fire or worse. So on April 16, 1986, he signed an agreement that he would testify against Amrine in exchange for dropping a weapons charge. (That spring, prison guards had found a knife in Ferguson's cell.)

Ferguson's new account: On the afternoon of the murder, he had seen Amrine walk over to Barber, who was sitting near the TV. The two men talked for a few minutes, then started walking back and forth across the rec room. With Amrine's hand on Barber's shoulder, they made five or six passes before Amrine pulled a knife from his waistband and stabbed Barber. Then Amrine took off running. Barber pulled the knife out of his back and chased Amrine until he collapsed.

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