Dead man walking home

A state court has overturned the conviction of Joseph Amrine, who spent 18 years on death row even though witnesses against him recanted their testimony.

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Joseph Amrine, a man who spent 18 years on death row for the murder of a fellow prisoner, and whose face was made famous in a Benneton ad, is going home. After years of appeals and execution dates, a period in which he saw the witnesses against him recant their testimony to no legal effect, the 47-year-old’s life has been spared in a surprise ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court, which said, among other things: “It is difficult to imagine a more manifestly unjust and unconstitutional result than permitting the execution of an innocent person.”

Amrine was convicted of the 1985 knife slaying of Gary Barber largely on the strength of eyewitness testimony from three jailhouse informants. A prison guard disputed the inmates’ stories, testifying that he had seen Amrine elsewhere at the time of the fatal stabbing, but the guilty verdict stuck and Amrine, having exhausted his appeals, was scheduled to die.

Over the years, all three prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony. When the first two recanted, lawyers for Amrine appealed to federal court, but the judge, Fernando Gaitan Jr., ruled that the recantations weren’t credible because there was a third witness who was still standing by his testimony. When that third witness later recanted, Amrine’s attorneys went back to Gaitan, who then argued, incredibly, that none of the recantations could be believed, since they were made by prisoners and thus inherently not credible. The claim raised the question of why the inmates’ testimony would have been taken seriously in the first place, but Gaitan, a Reagan appointee to the federal bench, would not be moved.

Last year, with nowhere to turn legally, Amrine seemed doomed. His attorney, Sean O’Brien, said at the time that his client’s best hope was a clemency petition filed with Missouri Gov. Bob Holden, but the Democratic governor, a staunch death penalty advocate, showed no sign of sparing Amrine. Students at the University of Missouri mounted a protest campaign on Amrine’s behalf, marching on the governor’s mansion last year, and ultimately producing a video about the case. Local papers, including the St. Louis Post Dispatch, editorialized for clemency or a new trial, but to little apparent effect.

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Finally, late last year, O’Brien filed a long-shot second appeal in the state Supreme Court, arguing that, with evidence of absolute innocence in the form of the three recantations, Amrine should be able to get a hearing on his case despite having exhausted all his appeals. The attorney general’s office filed a brief objecting to this desperate strategy, arguing bluntly that even evidence of absolute innocence was insufficient reason to reopen a case that had already run through its appeals.

While the attorney general’s argument might seem ruthless on its face, it is solidly in accordance with federal court precedent, which flatly limits defendants to one round of appeals. But in this case, apparently, a majority of the Missouri high court’s seven judges were willing to make an exception.

In a 4-3 ruling handed down on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court overturned Amrine’s conviction. Although the judges agreed with the state attorney general that Amrine had indeed exhausted his appeals, including his one permitted federal habeas corpus appeal, they found that “a showing of actual innocence acts as a ‘gateway’ that entitles the prisoner to review on the merits of the prisoner’s otherwise defaulted constitutional claim.”

Amrine, wrote the justices in their majority opinion, “has met his burden of providing clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence that undermines confidence in the correctness of the judgment. This case presents the rare circumstance in which no credible evidence remains from the first trial to support the conviction.”

The court ordered Amrine to be released within 30 days, unless the state should decide to retry his case. Given the loss of all three prosecution witnesses, another trial seems unlikely.

Three dissenting judges, while agreeing that Amrine deserved some relief, were unwilling to simply overturn his conviction. They argued that the recantations needed to be “evaluated” by a special court master. Judge Richard B. Teitelman, who wrote the majority opinion, disagreed, saying, “In light of the resulting lack of any remaining direct evidence of Amrine’s guilt from the first trial, Amrine has already met the clear and convincing evidence standard …”

Kent Gibson, another of Amrine’s appellate attorneys, says that the decision to overturn Amrine’s conviction is a slap at the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had ruled that even if the three recantations might suggest Amrine was innocent, the evidence was procedurally barred since Amrine’s attorneys should have been able to discover that evidence earlier through due diligence.

The decision to overturn Amrine’s conviction also constitutes a challenge of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has acted to limit death row prisoners to one habeas corpus appeal of their conviction, and of Congress, which codified that grim limit in 1996 with passage of the Effective Death Penalty Act. In their ruling, the Missouri justices insisted that courts “always have the responsibility to evaluate the quality of the evidence in a death penalty case.”

The decision is a belated rebuff to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who earlier, as attorney general for the state of Missouri, made the decision to seek to block Amrine’s appeal in federal court.

While a state court ruling carries no precedent value in federal courts or the courts of other states, Gibson says the Amrine decision will nonetheless help other death row cases where there have been belated recantations. “When you think about it, it doesn’t seem like a very radical concept to say that if the witnesses in a case have recanted, a court should reexamine the case,” says Gibson, “but these days, the federal courts are putting procedure before substance. In this case, the state court has said that substance matters more than procedure.”

Despite the victory, Gibson and O’Brien are ambivalent as they consider its impact. “It’s real nice that Joe is going to be free,” says Gibson, “but the fact that it took 17 years to get a case that had this many problems thrown out doesn’t speak very well of our legal system.”

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