UPDATE: Missouri executions likely on hold amid federal review

Tuesday, June 23, 2009 | 5:19 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Executions effectively are on hold again in Missouri.

Incoming Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. said Tuesday that it's unlikely the state Supreme Court will schedule any additional executions while a federal stay is in place for the execution of Reginald Clemons.

The 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals put a hold on Clemons' scheduled June 17 execution after his attorneys challenged Missouri's lethal injection procedures. They are seeking further court proceedings to ensure Missouri is using competent personnel who will not put inmates in pain with insufficient amounts of anesthesia before lethal injections.

Price said a federal decision in the Clemons case could apply to all Missouri inmates facing execution. So although numerous execution requests are pending, it's unlikely the court will schedule any more.

"We're back on hold," Price said Tuesday about the status of Missouri's execution policy.

Executions are set by the full seven-member Supreme Court, not just the chief justice, but Price said he doubted the court would "do anything so long as the 8th Circuit is looking at issues of general applicability."

Price, who was appointed to the high court in 1992 by then-Gov. John Ashcroft, is to begin his second two-year stint as chief justice July 1. He previously served as Missouri's top judicial official from 1999-2001.

Missouri's lethal injection procedures have been under court scrutiny for several years. Once a leading death penalty state, Missouri conducted no executions from October 2005 until this May.

In 2006, a federal judge declared Missouri's lethal injection process unconstitutional after the surgeon who was overseeing executions testified he sometimes transposed numbers and operated without written procedures or supervision.

The Department of Corrections responded by adopting written procedures detailing the precise amounts and order of the chemicals to be injected into condemned inmates. A federal judge upheld the protocol in 2008, and the state Supreme Court in February upheld the process by which Missouri adopted the execution procedures.

In February, however, the 8th Circuit heard arguments from Clemons' attorneys that the written procedures are insufficient. Clemons' attorneys later sought a stay of execution because the 8th Circuit has not ruled on their pending appeal.

The 8th Circuit did not cite a reason when granting a stay June 5.

"At the level of the Missouri Supreme Court, we've tried to move as expeditiously as possible" in setting executions, Price said Tuesday. "We have been slowed down by processes in the federal courts. We can't help that."

Clemons was sentenced to death for the April 1991 murders of 20-year-old Julie Kerry and 19-year-old Robin Kerry. Prosecutors said Clemons, who was 19 at the time, and three acquaintances randomly encountered the Kerrys on the abandoned Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis. Prosecutors said the women were raped, then pushed to their deaths into the Mississippi River.

Clemons' mother and stepfather said their son went to the bridge that night and saw the Kerrys but that Clemons and his friends did not kill the women.

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