ST. LOUIS (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday defended his decision to spare a death-row inmate's life but sidestepped offering details about why he did it, insisting that commuting the sentence to life in prison did not reflect any softening in his support of capital punishment when properly applied.
The Democratic governor appeared uncomfortable while making his first public comments about his Monday decision to spare Richard Clay just more than a day before Clay was to have been executed in the 1994 killing of a southeast Missouri man.
Nixon reiterated that he intervened in Clay's case after an exhaustive review. But he deflected repeated, pointed requests to elaborate, saying he weighed everything from Clay's "relative culpability" in the killing to the crime's seriousness.
Clay, 45, has maintained his innocence, claiming he doesn't know who killed Randy Martindale. Clay's attorney pledged again this week to push for a new trial.
Nixon did say his decision had nothing to do with the conduct of an assistant state prosecutor during Clay's trial or the potential shortage of one of three chemicals used in Missouri executions.
"I just felt and continue to feel that the best decision was, in this situation, not to use the ultimate penalty but instead a very serious penalty, which is life without the possibility of probation or parole," Nixon said during a question-and-answer session after his visit to an auto technology program at a St. Louis Community College campus.
"I thought a lot about it. This is not a decision that's made lightly," he added. "When you're choosing that ultimate punishment, which I support in the right cases, you have to take all these factors. This is not a snap-your-fingers" kind of decision.
Nixon spent 16 years as the state's attorney general before being elected governor in November 2008.
He noted that during that time 59 "cases came to their ultimate conclusion" in the prison system's death chamber.
As attorney general, his office defended the state's capital punishment in appeals to the state Supreme Court and provided assistant attorney generals to aid local prosecutors pursuing death sentences. Those underlings included Kenny Hulshof, who assisted in Clay's prosecution and later became a congressman who challenged Nixon in the 2008 gubernatorial election.
When asked Thursday whether Hulshof's role in Clay's trial was among factors he weighed before commuting Clay's sentence, Nixon sharply said, "No."
Monday's commutation was Missouri's first in a dozen years and only the second since 1993.
Nixon, who last year as governor declined to intervene in the eventual execution of a man convicted in another 1994 killing, said his granting clemency to Clay was no barometer for how he might handle another execution scheduled for next month. Nixon declined to discuss that case, saying he had not yet been briefed or been able "to dig into that."
"We'll get to that in the appropriate time," he said.
Nixon also waved off any notions that granting Clay clemency was linked to allegations last week by the American Civil Liberties Union that Missouri cut corners on execution rehearsals because of a national shortage of sodium thiopental, one of three drugs used in most executions. Corrections officials said the state was adequately prepared for the execution.