Will John Winfield Be the Fourth Inmate Missouri Executes During A Federal Appeal?

Jun 6, 2014 at 8:00 am
click to enlarge John Winfield.
John Winfield.

Missouri's affair with the death penalty has become a monthly ordeal. Six inmates have been executed since November, and it would have been seven if not for a convicted murderer's birth defect.

Now, we've got June 18 to look forward to -- that's the date John Winfield is scheduled to die for murdering two women in 1996. But Winfield's lawyer worries that Missouri will prematurely kill his client before the higher courts can fully review his motions. That's not a baseless worry, either.

"It's only Missouri that has this nasty habit of executing people while state remedies are still pending," says attorney Joesph Luby, who cites three other recent executions where Missouri offed an inmate before receiving the federal go-ahead to do so.

See also: Attorney General Koster Thinks Missouri Should Make Its Own Execution Drugs

On Wednesday, Luby appeared in the Cole County 19th Judicial Circuit Court to challenge the Missouri Department of Corrections over the secrecy around its execution drug; similar lawsuits have been filed by local and national news media, as well as death-row inmates in other states.

But Missouri's secrecy is just one part of the dysfunction, says Luby. He points to the January execution of Herbert Smulls, who was pronounced dead 30 minutes before the U.S. Supreme Court denied his final appeal.

"What would have happened if the state had killed Mr. Smulls and the United States Supreme Court were to rule that we're staying this man's execution?" Luby says.

See also: How the Supreme Court Makes Last-Minute Decisions on Missouri Executions

If the state pulls the same move on Winfield in June, he would be the fourth inmate in the past five executions to get this macabre early-bird special: The first was serial killer Joseph Franklin in November, then Allen Nicklasson in December and then Smulls a month later.

In an open letter sent to Republican state representative Jay Barnes in February, Luby described the state's tendency to ignore death -inmates' pending federal reviews.

  • Luby filed Franklin's final appeal in the U.S. District Court on November 19. He says he contacted the state's attorneys by email at 5:24 a.m. to request that they stay the execution until the motion was reviewed. The state apparently ignored that email and began Franklin's execution at 6:07 a.m..
  • Nicklasson was executed under "similarly troubling circumstances" on December 12, writes Luby. He describes another last minute request for appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court. The state did not wait for the federal judges to review that appeal either.
  • Smulls' execution brought a wave of scrutiny against Missouri officials after they brazenly ignored a pending review for appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen remarked that "Herbert Smulls may be dead and gone but his case and his cause continue to hang over this state like a ghost."

Luby isn't the only one upset with Missouri's overly expeditious executions. In his dissent on the federal ruling that lifted the stay of execution for Nicklasson, Eighth U.S. Circuit Court Judge Kermit Bye criticized the the layers of dysfunction in the state's execution process, including its prior trust in an error-prone doctor to administer the killing drugs. Bye wrote:

Missouri's past history of scheduling executions before a death row inmate has exhausted his constitutional rights of review, using unwritten execution protocols, misrepresenting dosage levels for drugs used in lethal injections, and providing unfettered discretion to a dyslexic physician to mix the drugs and oversee its executions, has earned from this federal judge more than just a healthy judicial skepticism regarding Missouri's implementation of the death penalty.

In addition to the lawsuit demanding Missouri reveal the source of its execution drugs, Winfield is also suing the warden of Potosi Correctional Center. His lawsuit alleges prison officials intimidated a staff member there who was planning on writing letters supporting Winfield's petition for clemency.

The staff member describes Winfield as among the "elite 1 percent of all inmates," citing his compassion toward other prisoners, including those with special needs. But the day after the employee notified his supervisors that he was supporting Winfield, prison officials opened an investigation against the staff member as "suspect" for his "overfamiliarity" with Winfield, according to the suit.

Fearing for his job, the staff member apologized to Luby's co-counsel and said he could not write the letter of support. The suit claims that the "investigation" targeting the staff member would actually prohibit him from writing such a letter, because an employee under investigation is technically not permitted to participate in activities potentially related to the investigation.

Continue for copies of Winfield's lawsuit, as well as a federal judge's blistering critique of Missouri's execution policy.