So Long, Joe

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

Jury foreman Russell Gross didn't trust convicts, and he later told O'Brien that the jurors were pretty much convinced from the beginning that Amrine was guilty. Juror Larry Hildebrand told O'Brien that when Ossman presented his case, it was as if he was meeting his witnesses for the first time. In the case of Brian Strothers, Ossman actually was: On the day Strothers was to testify, Ossman hastily interviewed the witness in the hall while the courtroom waited.

Amrine recalls that Ossman met with him only once before the trial, in a session with eight other inmates.

"There was a sharp contrast between the contradictory and faltering testimony of the defense witnesses and the very well rehearsed and cogently presented state's case," Hildebrand says.

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.

When the trial was over, Hildebrand wondered on the drive home whether Amrine was guilty and had no defense or had been assigned a lawyer who had put on "the worst job of representation you could ever have."

Ossman, now in private practice in Jefferson City, did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. No complaints have ever been filed against Ossman, according to the state's Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel.

Jurors Hildebrand and Gross have read the recanted testimonies. Both now think the jury made the wrong decision.

"Based on all the evidence I have seen and heard in this case, I believe that Joe Amrine is innocent," Gross wrote in a statement last year.

Once the presumption of innocence is gone, the appeals process is stacked against the party found guilty. In Missouri, verdicts that result in death sentences are automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. This court does not consider new evidence; it only reviews the motions and objections of the trial record to make sure the trial was conducted fairly. If the state Supreme Court does not send the case back to the trial court, the defendant can file a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the proceedings of the lower court to determine whether there were any irregularities.

If the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't review the case (it usually doesn't, and it didn't for Amrine), a defendant can appeal to the original trial court. This is essentially the only time a defendant can present new evidence. Amrine's post-conviction hearing was held in Jefferson City in 1989. Both Ferguson and Russell had recanted their testimony by then, but the lawyer handling Amrine's case hadn't contacted Poe, and with his [Poe's] testimony unchanged, Circuit Judge A.J. Seier did not overturn the conviction. Amrine was transferred to the Potosi Correctional Center in May 1989. He filed two more appeals, again to the State Supreme court and the U.S. Supreme Court. Both were futile.

In Missouri, most death-penalty defendants are represented by the Missouri Public Defender System, with several lawyers on hand to shepherd a case from trial through appeals. Defendants who need a public defender are assigned one from the jurisdiction where the trial takes place. If a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, the defense is turned over to the Capital Litigation Division, and two new attorneys are assigned for trial. If a defendant is convicted and sentenced to death, the automatic appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court is handled by a fourth defense attorney, an appellate specialist. If the appeal is affirmed by the state Supreme Court but is not granted a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court, it goes back to the circuit court for a post-conviction appeal, and the defendant is represented by his fifth and sixth public defenders. If the circuit court upholds the death sentence, a seventh attorney handles another appeal, returning the case to the state Supreme Court.

Missouri created the Capital Division and poured money into training attorneys in the late 1980s, O'Brien says, as a way to improve what was then an inefficient death-penalty system. For a while, the system was so backlogged that the state couldn't find attorneys to represent 22 death-row inmates, including Amrine. Although none of these men went to court without a lawyer, O'Brien says, "There were people who went to court and met their lawyer for the first time. Experienced and qualified lawyers would be the exception, not the rule."

In 1990, the American Bar Association released a study of state death-penalty cases, which concluded that "the principal failings of the Capital Punishment review process today are the inadequacy and inadequate compensation of counsel at trial and the unavailability of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings."

As of April, 65 men sat on Missouri's death row. Since 1989, the state has carried out 56 executions, half of them in the last four years. Six inmates were executed for prison murders: One killed a guard; the other five killed fellow inmates. Just a few years after Barber's murder, for example, a group of prisoners armed with knives attacked another inmate; prisoner Sam Smith tried to intervene, wound up in a knife fight with one of the assailants and stabbed the man nineteen times.

"Particularly in Jefferson City and Cole County, just about every prison murder was a death case, just as a matter of policy," says Kent Gipson, an attorney with the Public Interest Litigation Clinic. "I think the prosecutors know committing a murder in prison gives them one of the best arguments to get the death penalty."

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