So Long, Joe

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

For his cooperation, Ferguson earned a transfer to Cole County Jail and a radio.

And on April 28, 1986, Amrine went on trial for Barber's murder. He wore an orange jumpsuit for the short ride from the prison to the Cole County courthouse, where he sat with the shackles on his legs attached to a metal hook under the table. The jury was cleared from the room before his testimony so that Amrine could be moved from the table to the witness stand. "What could they possibly be thinking about my testimony when I had two sheriffs standing behind me with hands on their guns?" he wonders now. Amrine also remembers the judge, Byron Kinder. "[He] looked at me like I had shit on me," Amrine says.

The three witnesses were telling different stories. Russell said he wasn't in the room. Poe said Amrine sneaked up on Barber, stabbed him and then pulled out the knife. Ferguson said Amrine and Barber were walking side by side for several minutes before Amrine killed him, leaving the knife in.

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 end of Amrine's four-day trial, he was sentenced to death.

Amrine's current attorney, Sean O'Brien of the Public Interest Litigation Clinic, theorizes that Brooks obtained the testimony implicating Amrine because he was more interested in clearing his caseload than solving crimes. Amrine says he has since transformed himself into "friendly-ass Joe" -- no trouble now, no fights, no rapes and a GED. But at the time of the murder, his reputation for bad behavior made him a convenient suspect. "I'm not sure this whole thing grows out of a plot to frame Amrine so much as 'There's a murder, here's our theory, let's put a case together and win,'" O'Brien says. "There's a general presumption that all the inmates are guilty of something."

In depositions, Brooks admitted to O'Brien that "it would be a fair statement" to say that investigators sometimes edited prisoners' statements to fit their own theories. Brooks agreed that he sometimes ironed out inconsistencies in stories prisoners told officers.

Brooks, now a captain with the Cole County Sheriff's Department in Jefferson City, declines to discuss Amrine's case. Former prosecutor Brown says O'Brien is simply doing what a defense attorney is supposed to do: throwing up any and all possible doubts that might save his client. "I have absolute confidence in [Brooks'] professional ability and his integrity," Brown says.

Amrine doesn't know what he would be doing if the verdict had been different. He would have been released from prison before 1997, the year his mother died. He figures if he earns $7.50 a month in prison mopping and cleaning, he could earn that much an hour in the real world. He says he can't imagine himself getting in trouble again. Even before his time on death row, he had earned his GED. He knew that if he didn't change his aggressive attitude, it would kill him -- in those days, fights almost always turned into one guy trying to kill the other.

At the beginning of a jury trial, a defendant is presumed innocent. A defendant already serving time may be presumed less innocent. Still, Amrine's original jurors might ultimately have doubted the testimony of three jailbirds whose stories didn't match. But Julian Ossman, the state public defender who had been appointed to represent Amrine, helped the prosecution's case more than his client's.

Prison guard John Noble had also been in the rec room on the afternoon of the murder. Noble testified that he'd seen a man running away from Barber immediately after Barber had been stabbed. Noble's testimony has remained the same for seventeen years; however, during Amrine's trial, Noble said he didn't know at first that Terry Russell was the man's name -- a point of confusion that prosecutor Brown used to neutralize Noble's testimony and that Ossman did not attempt to clarify.

Ossman also failed to call two witnesses who would have testified that Amrine was innocent. An inmate named Ronnie Ross, who would later testify that he was playing cards with Amrine at the time of the murder, did not testify in 1986. Inmate Kevin Dean testified in 1998 that Amrine was playing poker and Barber was working out on the punching bag when Russell stabbed Barber. But Dean never took the stand during Amrine's 1986 trial -- though he was waiting in the hallway outside the courtroom for just that purpose.

Ossman never cast any doubt on Russell's story. He didn't mention Russell's fight with Barber ten days before the murder, and he didn't question Russell's alibi. Russell claimed that when he'd left the rec room to get aspirin, he'd chatted with an inmate he identified as Harry Heard or Hurd. No man with either name was listed as an inmate at the prison the day Barber was killed.

The jurors never heard the discrepancies in the different versions of the murder -- prosecutor Brown presented Ferguson's story of Amrine and Barber's side-by-side stroll as the only account. O'Brien believes this was part of Brown's strategy to "bank on Ossman's incompetence." O'Brien adds, "With a competent defense lawyer, Brown would have not gotten away with that."

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