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Exonerated inmates speak out against the death penalty

Exonerated inmates speak out against the death penalty

March 18th, 2018 by Jeff Haldiman in Local News

Death row exonerees Joe Amrine, left, and Reggie Griffin wait to speak Saturday during an event at St. Joseph Cathedral School. They talked about their experiences and inequality in the justice system. Griffin spent 23 years on death row and Amrine did 17 for crimes they did not commit.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

As Missouri prepares for a possible execution Tuesday, a group that argues against the death penalty held a forum Saturday in Jefferson City featuring two men who were released from death row.

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty hosted the event in the Undercroft of St. Joseph Cathedral.

Joe Amrine was already serving time in prison when he was convicted in the stabbing death of a fellow Missouri State Penitentiary inmate in Jefferson City in 1986. He maintained his innocence for years, and in July 2003 — after 17 years on death row — he was freed from prison after it was found there was no credible evidence linking Amrine to the crime and fellow inmates admitted they lied when testifying at his trial. They later said Amrine was not in the same area where the murder occurred.

Amrine has been speaking out against perceived injustices in the system since his release. During his time in prison, Amrine saw seven inmates he shared a cell with executed.

"Two people executed were innocent, and I believe that with all my heart," he said.

Amrine was particularly unhappy despite studies concluding the death penalty system is disproportionately targeted at blacks and the poor, policy makers haven't acted. He lamented more people are "steered by emotions" than compelled by facts. He said, if he had been killed on death row, his mother and his siblings and his children would've been victims.

"People who have lost loved ones are all victims," he said.

Amrine offered multiple arguments against the death penalty.

"In states where the death penalty exists, the murder rate is higher," he said. "Execution makes no sense at all. How are you going to prove murder is wrong by killing somebody?"

He noted because of more attention to death penalty cases over the last decade, many states are not seeking that sentence because of the amount of time and resources it takes to get a conviction.

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"They realized that it cost $2.7 million to convict me and keep me on death row," he said. "It only costs $600,000 to keep me in prison for the rest of my life."

Reggie Griffin is the fourth person in Missouri to be exonerated of a crime in which he received a death sentence. He also spoke at Saturday's event.

Griffin was charged with stabbing a fellow inmate at Moberly Correctional Center and convicted in 1988 based on the word of two prison informants who got reduced sentences for their testimony. The Missouri Supreme Court eventually found prosecutors withheld evidence that guards confiscated the murder weapon from another inmate, not Griffin, and the two informants had never said Griffin was involved in the crime.

"People probably think that something like this don't happen, but it do happen, and it did happen to me," he said. "I stayed on death row for about six or seven years before that was overturned, but I still was under that, because I knew that any time I could've been the next one in line."

Griffin was exonerated of the crime in 2011 and was released from prison in 2013, but said transitioning to society has been difficult after more than 30 years of incarceration, 23 of which were spent on death row.

"I've never received an apology — a simple apology — from the State of Missouri," he said. "I'm trying to put my life back together, but it's not easy. I'm here today because I feel that if I reach one person with my story, I've accomplished something."

Amrine and Griffin, with felony convictions and no work history for such a long time, have not been able to find full-time jobs. They said they mainly go around speaking to groups, when asked, and doing odd jobs like painting and cleaning yards.

"The system is set up to help those who have been paroled," Amrine said. "I know of guys I was in prison with who get checks every month, get food stamps and get Medicaid. The system doesn't help those who were exonerated of their crime so we can't get that stuff."

Both men live in Kansas City. Amrine lives in his sister's home. She was murdered, and her killer is still being sought. Griffin is married.

"I would take news clippings to an interview about how I was in prison and that I got exonerated, but once they've got your Social Security number they know everything about you," Griffin said.

In attendance at Saturday's event was Larry Hildebrand, of Jefferson City, who was on the jury that convicted Amrine in the 1980s. The two had not seen each other since then.

"When I went home from that trial, the first thing I said to my wife was, 'He's either guilty as sin or he had the worst lawyer in the world,' and we later found out he had the worst lawyer in the world," Hildebrand said. "This was on my mind for years, and in 2001, a couple of girls came to our home representing the public litigation firm out of Kansas City, which was representing (Amrine). They left a packet and said they'd be in contact with me in a couple of weeks. The packet had information which I never saw at the trial. As jurors, you don't get to see everything. When they called me back, I told them, 'It's not a matter of if this man should have a new trial; he's innocent and should be freed.'"

Hildebrand said the prosecution team was on top of the case while Amrine's lawyer was "dead pan."

"Being a Catholic, I understand that the death penalty eliminates the possibility of conversion or forgiveness," he said. "As long as there is a breath of life, there is the possibility for change. Anybody who is an advocate for the death penalty ought to have to sit on a jury."

On Tuesday, the state is scheduled to execute Rusty Bucklew. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection for shooting and killing Michael Sanders in Cape Girardeau in 1996. He then abducted and raped his ex-girlfriend, who had been living with Sanders, before he was caught and later convicted and sentenced to death. If he is put to death, he would be the 89th person in Missouri to be executed since the state re-instituted the punishment in 1989.

While officials with Missouri for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said they condemn the violence Bucklew perpetrated, they believe executions are "intolerable acts of retributive violence." The group plans to hold vigils Tuesday afternoon in front of the governor's office at the Capitol and Tuesday evening in Columbia at the Boone County Courthouse.