Democratic House candidates back moratorium on death penalty

Monday, July 21, 2008 | 6:18 p.m. CDT; updated 4:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — It’s been five years for Joe Amrine. Five years of freedom. Five years since he was exonerated from Missouri’s death row.

Amrine, of Kansas City, came to Columbia to speak in support of a moratorium on the death penalty Monday morning at the Ragtag Theater. The event was sponsored by the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The story of Amrine’s exoneration is no mystery to those who have paid attention to news about the death penalty in Missouri over the years. What was different at Monday’s news conference, however, was the unanimous support his call for a moratorium received from the Democratic candidates for the 23rd and 25th District seats in the state House of Representatives. All five candidates, including four who spoke at the event, said they would advocate for a moratorium if elected.

Amrine was serving time for robbery and forgery in the Jefferson City Correctional Center when the testimony of other inmates implicated him in the 1985 stabbing death of fellow inmate Gary Barber. He was later convicted and spent 16 years on death row. He had run out of appeals when a group of MU students made a documentary in 2002 presenting evidence of his innocence. A year later, the Missouri Supreme Court granted Amrine another trial. He was eventually acquitted and freed on July 28, 2003.

On Monday, Amrine said his opposition to the death penalty stems from the possibility that innocent people might be executed. He talked about how it felt waiting on death row, knowing he was out of appeals and wondering when the knock on his cell door would indicate that his time for a lethal injection had come.

“If that’s not cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is,” he said.

While he fought the case, other inmates cracked jokes behind his back about his belief in his innocence. Even Amrine will say there are few innocent people on death row.

“But one is too many,” he said.

That sentiment is exactly why the Democrats running for the House seats say they side with Amrine.

Sean Spence, one of three Democrats seeking the party nomination in the 25th District, said the finality of the death penalty makes it seem like the easy way out.

“(But) every year we find out someone has been sentenced to death by mistake,” Spence said at the news conference. “Every year the easy solution turns into someone’s nightmare.”

Spence said he would be happy to sponsor or co-sponsor a bill on a moratorium, if nothing more.

“I support total abolition of the death penalty,” he said in a later interview. “It is not a punishment that works in any way.”

Bob Pund, another 25th District candidate, said he used to support the death penalty but now opposes it.

“Joe is evidence that we as a society are capable of putting someone innocent to death,” Pund said at the news conference. “This is all the evidence we need to stop the death penalty.”

In an interview after the event, Pund elaborated: “We’re all responsible for what the government does, and we have to take that seriously. We don’t want the government to commit murder, and if an innocent person is killed, that’s murder.”

Mary Still, the third 25th District candidate, was unable to attend but sent a representative to read a statement supporting the moratorium and a study of Missouri’s public defender system, which she thinks is overworked and underfunded. She said in an interview that she would support a bill for a moratorium, but would not sponsor or co-sponsor the bill.

“There’s plenty of people pushing that issue already,” Still said. “I have other issues I would rather focus on that would directly benefit this community.”

The 23rd District candidates, Stephen Webber and Cande Iveson, also support a moratorium.

“I’m sorry we still have to be discussing this,” Iveson said at the news conference. “The least we can do is instate a moratorium.”

Iveson has never supported the death penalty or thought it was an effective deterrent, she said. If elected, she would work to see that a moratorium is instated.

“It is unlikely that a freshman legislator would sponsor a bill like that in their first term, but you can at least co-sponsor it,” she said.

Webber also said he favors ending the death penalty in Missouri and would strongly advocate a bill calling for a moratorium if it is proposed. He said some people who argue the government is incapable of providing adequate education or health care for children will turn around and insist the government is qualified to administer the death penalty. That makes little sense to him.

“No policy run by human beings will be perfect,” he said. “But when it comes to life and death, that demands perfection.”

Amrine said he’s surprised that few people attend anti-death penalty protests, but crowds will show up to protest global warming. He said he was happy to come to Columbia to promote a moratorium.

“I used to dream about the day I would be exonerated, and how I’d talk to the cameras and tell them all I was innocent,” he said. “This is that dream.”

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