They've Got the Wrong Martyr

Tragic as his story might be, convicted killer isn't living in a perfect world

Call me jaded, but the victimization of Antonio Richardson just isn't working for me.

Richardson is scheduled to be executed next Wednesday for his role in the horrific murder of Julie Kerry, who was raped and thrown off the old Chain of Rocks Bridge to her drowning death -- along with her sister Robin -- by Richardson and three other men in 1991. He was convicted in 1993 and lost all his appeals through last May, when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take his case.

Richardson is now 26, but his apparent claim to fame is that he was just 16 when he took part in the rape-murders. This, it turns out, has entitled him to international attention as a prospective "victim" of capital punishment.

This week, Richardson's lawyers are asking Gov. Bob Holden to commute his sentence to life without probation or parole, arguing that it's barbaric to execute one so young. Joining the case are a host of idealistic advocates, from the Children's Defense Fund to the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry to the European Union.

Previously, Amnesty International has carried the banner for victim Richardson. A group called the Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty is actively in the fray, emphasizing not only Richardson's erstwhile youth but the fact, argued by his public defender in court, that he was a former Special School District student with a borderline-retarded IQ of 70.

In a perfect world, I suppose, all this goodwill and all these mitigating circumstances might result in a commutation for Richardson. Hell, given all the warm fuzzies being hurled, it's surprising that they're not demanding his full freedom.

After all, if Richardson was such a helpless child at 16 -- his attorney claims he was mentally the equivalent of a 7-year-old -- and if he truly can't be held responsible for his actions, then why should the state of Missouri imprison the poor soul, without chance for probation or parole, for the rest of his precious days? Perhaps he should just go free.

That would be the case in a perfect world, wouldn't it?

Sadly for Richardson, he doesn't live in a perfect world. He lives in the same imperfect one that Julie and Robin Kerry lived in on April 5, 1991, when they took their visiting cousin to the Chain of Rocks Bridge to show him a poem they had painted there two years ago. Julie was 20, Robin 19.

For that crime, the two girls were raped -- at Richardson's suggestion, court records say -- and pushed off the 70-foot-high bridge to their deaths. Their cousin, Thomas Cummins, was also forced to jump, but he survived and identified Richardson in court as the one who pushed the girls off.

The Kerry girls received the death penalty from Richardson and his three associates, two of whom are on death row. The fourth and youngest defendant, then 15, pleaded guilty and turned state's evidence in exchange for a life sentence.

Understand that this isn't like a lot of dicey capital-murder cases, filled with contradictions and circumstantial evidence and brutish police work. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be any doubt at all, much less reasonable doubt, that Richardson and the others did the deeds.

At one point or another, all of the defendants confessed to the crime. Richardson and two others recanted, but they were battered in court by the eyewitness testimony of Cummins and the fourth defendant, Daniel Winfrey. Police also found hard physical evidence -- a flashlight and Cummins' stolen watch -- linking the defendants to the crime scene.

Richardson and company weren't aided by the parade of tearful witnesses attesting to the wonderful, caring nature of the Kerry sisters -- this was one of the most emotionally charged murder cases ever tried in the St. Louis area -- but it still can't be argued plausibly that they were denied a fair trial. Indeed, there were three separate trials, with three juries, three guilty verdicts and three death sentences.

So it's not a case about getting the wrong guy, only about whether our society is disgraced by not drawing a distinction between its disposition of a 16-year-old rapist-murderer and an older, wiser rapist-murderer of, say, 18 or 21. Once again, I must be hardening, because I'm having trouble following the moral imperative of this distinction.

If 16-year-olds are children incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions, why are they allowed to drive?

No doubt the mental-retardation angle is a better one for Richardson's army of sympathizers, and the Post reports that both legislative houses in Missouri have bills approved at the committee level that would exempt the retarded from the death penalty. But it's not the law yet, and it definitely wasn't the law in 1991 when the Kerry girls died at the hands of Richardson and the others.

Is that fair to Richardson? Arguably not. But unless Holden chooses to usurp the Legislature's role for this one case -- and, likely, assure himself status as a one-term governor in the process -- he has little choice but to allow the law to be enforced as it sits on the books.

Besides, what's really unfair to Richardson is an aspect of the story reported last week by Post columnist Bill McClellan, noting that Richardson apparently would not be facing the death penalty were it not for an anti-death-penalty activist. According to McClellan, the state offered a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, Richardson's lawyers recommended it and he was ready to accept.

After a jailhouse visit from a fellow from a group calling itself the Coalition for Justice, Richardson changed his mind, went to trial and received the death penalty, McClellan reported. In a perfect world, that doesn't happen. People claiming to hold someone's life precious don't take chances with that life to make a larger political point.

Then again, in a perfect world, Julie and Robin Kerry would be 30 and 29.

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