Gov. Nixon got hundreds of mercy pleas

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has remained largely mum about his motivations for sparing the life of a condemned prisoner, but records obtained by The Associated Press show hundreds of people implored him to do so — including many who cast doubt on whether the man actually was guilty of murder.

In the days before Richard Clay was to receive a lethal injection for the 1994 slaying of Randy Martindale, Nixon’s office received more than 300 phone calls, 200 petition signatures and 175 e-mails, letters and faxes urging him to stop the scheduled Jan. 12 execution. Just five people suggested it should go forward.

Nixon granted Clay clemency by changing his sentence to life in prison. It marked just the third time since Missouri reinstated the death penalty in 1977 that a governor has spared an inmate from the execution chamber.

Citing the state’s Sunshine Law, The Associated Press sought all gubernatorial records pertaining to Clay. Nixon’s office declined to provide any documents from the governor himself, his advisers or the Board of Probation and Parole, which makes clemency recommendations. Nixon’s deputy general counsel and custodian of records, Gail Vasterling, cited an exception to Missouri’s open-records law for confidential communications between public entities and their attorneys and a statute specifically closing Board of Probation and Parole records.

The letters and e-mails released by Nixon’s office included some from residents in foreign countries and many from people expressing a general opposition to the death penalty. But many also came from Missouri residents who professed to support capital punishment yet had specific concerns about whether Clay actually killed Martindale, as he was convicted of doing.

While sizable, the quantity of public suggestions regarding Clay’s sentence actually was significantly smaller than for the execution of Dennis Skillicorn, which proceeded as planned in 2009, Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Wednesday. He said the correspondence was reviewed by Nixon’s staff — not the governor himself — and did not play a prominent role in Nixon’s decision to commute Clay’s sentence.

“The relevant information was really primarily found in trial transcripts, legal files and court opinions,” Holste said.

Many of those who wrote to Nixon also cited court records while raising concerns about Clay’s death sentence.

“In reviewing transcripts of the trial, there seems to be an issue proving that Richard Clay is guilty beyond a ‘reasonable doubt,’” wrote John Dissauer, a TV meteorologist from Cape Girardeau who contacted the governor’s office in his private capacity. “There appears to be a lot of loopholes in the prosecution’s claims. Even more so, there seems to be a lack of evidence.”

Many who pleaded for mercy for Clay noted that Martindale’s estranged wife, Stacy — who was convicted of second-degree murder for her role and was sentenced to 15 years in prison — was found to have gunpowder residue on her hands in the hours after the crime. Many also criticized the courtroom tactics of special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, who worked for Nixon in the attorney general’s office and later ran against him for governor in 2008. But Nixon has said Hulshof’s role in the case played no part in his clemency decision.

Among those pleading on Clay’s behalf were various relatives and friends, a witness to the car chase that eventually led to Clay’s arrest and even a friend of the victim. They highlighted his days in the church youth choir, service in the Marines and acts of kindness while acknowledging that Clay became a drug addict and dealer and — as the sister of his ex-wife put it — “an all-around unsavory human being.”

“I have to admit that at the time of his conviction, I was pleased to see him go to jail for a prolonged period of time, regardless of his guilt or innocence,” wrote Cherie Smith, the sister of Karen Schaffer Clay. “However, I cannot in good conscience be happy to know that he is about to lose his life for something he might not have done.”

Darrell Ray, who identified himself as a friend of Randy Martindale, wrote in e-mail to Nixon that he wanted the person responsible for his friend’s murder to be put to death. But he added that he didn’t believe Clay was the killer.

“For God’s sake, put politics aside in this matter. Look at the evidence, and lack of, and decide accordingly,” Ray wrote.

In a brief statement issued when he granted clemency, Nixon said that “Richard Clay’s involvement in this crime is clear” and “the evidence clearly supports the jury’s verdict of murder in the first degree.” But Nixon said he decided to commute Clay’s sentence to life without parole after “having looked at this matter in its entirety and after significant thought and counsel.”

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