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GUEST COLUMN: Capital punishment is not the answer; save Dennis Skillicorn

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 | 1:35 p.m. CDT; updated 11:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nearly four years have passed since Missouri officials executed a human being. The sky has not fallen since then, but state homicide rates have decreased slightly. In fact, more people were murdered statewide in 2005 (402, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics) than in any year during the past decade, even though we executed five men, one of the busier years this century for Missouri’s executioners. Capital punishment doesn’t necessarily make us safer. It does, however, make us murderers.

And now state officials plan to execute Dennis Skillicorn minutes after midnight May 20. Current and former guards, volunteers and prisoners assert the execution of this rehabilitated and positive peacemaker could make life more dangerous at the Potosi prison where he and the other nearly 50 men sentenced to death usually live, among hundreds of other inmates, until given an execution date. They are then moved to the Bonne Terre prison where they are executed a month later.

Gov. Jay Nixon should commute Skillicorn’s death sentence and allow him to continue giving by living while incarcerated. Skillicorn also deserves clemency as he was an accomplice to crimes but killed no one. Revenge and blind obedience to past court decisions are the only explanations why officials would proceed with killing him. Missourians, not just those incarcerated or working in prisons, would be better served by Nixon’s merciful, wise intervention.

“It’s not going to help anyone if Dennis is executed; nobody is going to benefit,” insists Neal Turnbough, a former Potosi prison correctional officer in a letter he wrote in August, urging intervention by former Gov. Matt Blunt. Courts stayed his execution then, spelling Dennis and his family from their continuing, tortuous journey. Turnbough is one of eight current and past prison workers who have spoken publicly on his behalf, noting Skillicorn “tries to be a good influence” by getting along with everyone, staff and offenders alike. ”He’s not a danger or a threat to anyone,” Turnbough wrote.

To view the supportive comments of others, watch the YouTube videos pleading for Skillicorn's clemency.

“I know because of what the state plans to do, the focus is on my situation,” Skillicorn reflected during a conversation we had in the fall. “For some people it’s on the pros and cons of the death penalty. The focus for me and my heart for the past 14 years has been that Richard Drummond lost his life, (his) wife no longer has a husband and his children no longer have a father.”

On August 24, 1994, Drummond kindly stopped his car to assist three stranded motorists near Kingdom City. Two other men, Allen Nicklasson, Tim DeGraffenreid and Skillicorn climbed into his car. “I pulled out the gun and I put it up to Drummond’s head,” writes Nicklasson in an affidavit.

They directed him to drive west, stopping in Lafayette County. While the other two men waited in the stolen car, Nicklasson ordered Drummond to walk toward some woods a quarter mile away, where he fatally shot him. It was a contemptible crime, leaving many relatives and friends grieving.

“I have maintained from the beginning (noting in police reports) that Dennis had no knowledge that I would shoot Mr. Drummond. This is not something that I just cooked up,” Nicklasson said. “Dennis is not a violent man,” he continues. “The judge at Dennis’ trial wouldn’t let my statement in; he said it was unreliable. That never made sense to me because (prosecutors) used it in my trial.”

Nicklasson also received a death sentence. DeGraffenreid was convicted of second degree murder, more in line with what Skillicorn should have received.

“Dennis is a good man. What he was before I cannot testify to,” Rick Secoy says in the YouTube video. Secoy worked a decade in the Potosi prison, as a corrections officer for five years and then as the Inmate Activities Coordinator.

“Dennis is a quiet leader. He leads by example,” Secoy said in an affidavit. “The population at Potosi as a whole (would) suffer without Dennis Skillicorn.”

Many individuals confronted with a death sentence understandably focus their energies on survival (which one of us wouldn’t?) via legal appeals. Skillicorn has wholeheartedly directed most of his energies on restorative justice and performing good works, trying to give back to society though understanding, obviously, he’s unable to undo the harm done by him and his accomplices.

The past five years he’s been editor of Compassion, a bi-monthly national magazine featuring writings and artwork by death-row prisoners. Subscriptions and donations have raised more than $40,000 in scholarships for people who have had loved ones murdered. He co-created the Full Circle program to help offenders become accountable for their actions and gain skills necessary for re-entry into society.

He worked with other prisoners in compiling a book with the self-explanatory title, "Today's Choices Affect Tomorrow's Dreams," distributed nationally to juvenile centers. Skillicorn helped start the Potosi prison’s hospice program and has cared for a dozen terminally ill inmates through the years.

Several years ago, he co-founded the 4-H LIFE program, designed to strengthen families coping with having an incarcerated parent. Skillicorn, a devout Christian, co-founded Set Free Ministry, which reaches out to thousands of prisoners annually.

Even if he wasn’t a positive influence, he and all people have a basic human right to life. No state, no individual, has a right to kill anyone, period. Executing Skillicorn furthermore would eliminate a great example and send a stark message to others incarcerated: there’s no reason to strive to be a more positive presence. If one of the best examples of someone who’s rehabilitated can be executed, why should I change? Skillicorn, I realize, would answer such a question with something like: to help save your own soul, brother, to help make a positive difference, enriching the lives of others in this world around you, to give while our bodies get gifted with life."

Please urge Gov. Nixon to commute his death sentence or to convene a Board of Inquiry to allow for a fairer determination of clemency. As attorney general, Nixon defended all county court decisions. As recently as October 2008, a spokesperson said Nixon would “continue to oppose any and all attempts by Mr. Skillicorn to avoid the sentence he received in a Missouri courtroom.” Write him at Room 216, State Capitol Building, Jefferson City, MO 65101 or call 573-751-3222.

Join a "Vigil for Life" from 5 to 6 pm, Tuesday near the Boone County Courthouse on Walnut Street in Columbia, remembering all murder victims, their loved ones and urging, “No more executions.” Let us start by sparing the life of Dennis Skillicorn. Call Jeff at 449-4585 for details.

Jeff Stack is coordinator of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation.


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