So Long, Joe

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

Karen Kraft, director of the Capital Litigation Division of the Missouri Public Defender System, says prosecutors "frequently" seek the death penalty in prison killings. "If it's a guard, in particular, they want to be able to say, 'If you kill a guard, we're going to get you.'" When an inmate is charged with killing another inmate, Kraft says, the accused killer is often already serving time for a serious crime, so prosecutors think that "if they don't prosecute harshly, people would be killing each other right and left."

Brown contends that getting a jury to convict any defendant -- even a prison inmate -- in a death-penalty trial isn't easy. Still, defense attorneys begin prison murder cases at a distinct disadvantage. "The problem with prison killing cases is, you're gonna get a lot of closed doors," Kraft says. "The prison is not going to be forthcoming in giving information. Emotions run high because guards and prisoners are in there together." And unlike defense attorneys, prosecutors can cut deals with prisoners. "If they're making deals with inmates, that is not the most reliable testimony," Kraft notes. "Gee, what kind of incentive do they have to necessarily tell the truth?"

Amrine's unsuccessful state appeals were exhausted by 1990, and during those years Amrine had been represented by a number of attorneys, many of them inexperienced in death-penalty appeals. After Amrine used up his state appeals, he filed for habeas corpus, a petition that claims unlawful imprisonment, in U.S. District Court. The motion was transferred to the court of Judge Fernando Gaitan in Kansas City, who had the case under review for six years, until 1996.

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.

Although the three men who testified against Amrine recanted at different times in the years after the murder, their statements weren't heard at the same time until a 1998 hearing in Gaitan's courtroom.

Ferguson had been the first to recant, at Amrine's 1989 post-conviction hearing. Over the years, he said, he had become so distraught about lying that he was prepared to confess to Barber's murder himself. "I would rather myself die than to see him die because of me," he later told O'Brien. (Ferguson claimed he had actually tried to kill himself several times by slashing his wrists and once by slashing his throat, a wound that required 32 stitches.)

Ferguson now claimed he wasn't even in the rec room on the afternoon of the murder. He said he'd been working out on the punching bag and had gone to the bathroom to wash. When he came back, Barber was dead, "laying in front of the door in his blood."

Russell also changed his story for the 1989 hearing, saying that the reason he had falsely testified was to avoid being prosecuted himself for killing Barber. Russell still maintained he had left the rec room at the time of the murder and didn't know where Amrine was when Barber was stabbed.

"It was wrong for them to use me to get to that man," Russell says now. "Flip a coin: heads or tails. One side says I did it. The other side says he did it. The reality is, they don't know who did it."

Judge Gaitan's first ruling, on February 29, 1996, six years after receiving the case on appeal, had reaffirmed the decision from the 1989 post-conviction hearing. "Despite the new evidence presented at trial by witnesses Russell and Ferguson," Gaitan wrote, "it cannot be said that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found [Amrine] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the continued existence of witness Poe's testimony."

Though two witnesses had recanted their testimony, it took only one witness to uphold the murder conviction.

O'Brien and PILC got involved when the case went on to the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997. The PILC had been formed in 1995 around the remains of the Capital Punishment Resource Center, which had been founded at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to train lawyers to handle capital cases.

O'Brien's first step was to track down Jerry Poe, who was serving time at the Missouri Eastern Correctional Center in Pacific. When O'Brien contacted Poe, he didn't know whether Poe would stand by his original testimony. But Poe claimed that he had tried to "let several people and the court system know what really happened" by writing letters to a federal judge and the state Supreme Court, among others. "No defense attorney or investigator had ever questioned me about this case," Poe said.

On the day of the murder, he told O'Brien, he was playing cards when he heard a commotion behind him. He turned to see Barber chasing someone, but he didn't know whether it was Amrine or someone else. He hadn't seen the stabbing. He didn't know who Amrine was or where he was.

"[Brooks] told me, you know, that they were going to give -- do some stuff for me and all this," Poe later testified. "And whenever they wanted to change something around, they'd just stop, and he changed it around whenever he done it, you know, as he went along, typing it up."

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