ST. LOUIS — Missouri's governor decided to spare a convicted murderer's life Monday, a little more than a day before the man was scheduled to die by injection for a 1994 killing.
Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement that he was commuting the sentence for Richard Clay, 45, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Clay was convicted of killing Randy Martindale of New Madrid in 1994 but has maintained his innocence. Nixon's statement did not explain why the governor decided to commute the sentence, and in fact said that after an exhaustive review, the governor is "convinced of Richard Clay's involvement in the senseless murder of Randy Martindale" and finds "the evidence clearly supports the jury's verdict of murder in the first degree."
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the written statement "will be the extent of comment from the governor or his office."
It wasn't clear if Nixon's decision had anything to do with 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. The ACLU said Missouri didn't use sodium thiopental in an October rehearsal aimed at determining if staffers understood how to properly administer the drugs — possibly to stretch a dwindling supply. Corrections officials said the state was adequately prepared for the execution.
Clay's attorney, Jennifer Herndon, said she and Clay were elated by Nixon's decision but will continue to seek a new trial.
"I've always believed he is innocent and will continue to fight," Herndon said. "This is only the first step."
In a Monday interview before Nixon announced his decision, Clay told The Associated Press he was not optimistic the governor would halt the execution because Nixon was attorney general at the time of his trial and one of Nixon's assistants, Kenny Hulshof, aided in the prosecution.
"Mr. Nixon said there were no mistakes at that time, that Mr. Hulshof did a fine job and I had a fair trial," Clay said.
A spokeswoman for Hulshof, now a private attorney, said he was out of the state and not available for comment Monday.
Riley Bock, the New Madrid County prosecutor who handled the case along with Hulshof, said he had no problem with Nixon's decision and he continues to be convinced of Clay's guilt.
"Commutation is always on the table," Bock said. "The governor, that's his job to do whatever he thinks is right. End of case."
During Nixon's 16 years as attorney general, his office defended Missouri's death penalty in numerous appeals to the state Supreme Court. It also provided assistant attorney generals to aid local prosecutors pursuing the death sentence in murders.
After Nixon won election as governor in November 2008, a coalition of death penalty critics called for a moratorium on executions so Missouri's death penalty system could be studied. A Nixon spokesman said at the time that Nixon backed the use of the death penalty and that families of victims deserved closure and justice without lengthy delays in death sentences.
Commutation requests are common but rarely granted. The previous one in Missouri drew worldwide attention.
In 1999, then-Gov. Mel Carnahan heeded the request of Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's visit to St. Louis and spared the life of Darrell Mease hours before the scheduled execution. Carnahan, a Baptist, cited "the extraordinary circumstances of the pope's request."
In the interview with AP, Clay admitted he was no Boy Scout — but said he was no killer, either.
At the time of the killing, Clay already was facing a methamphetamine-related charge. He said he decided to start selling drugs again to pay off his attorneys in that case.
On May 19, 1994, Clay and his friend, Chuck Sanders, went to the home of Stacy Martindale to sell her drugs. The three were friends and Sanders was dating Martindale, who was estranged from her husband, Randy.
Clay said Randy Martindale showed up unexpectedly at the house, saw the men there, and told them to leave or he would call police. Stacy Martindale gave them the keys to her Camaro, and the men drove off, with Sanders behind the wheel.
Sanders didn't realize the car had struck a toy in the driveway. The toy became lodged under the car and caused sparks. A New Madrid police officer saw the sparks and pulled over the Camaro.
Clay said he panicked because he had meth and marijuana with him in the car, so jumped out and ran to a flooded field where he hid through the night. He still was hiding in the swampy area the next morning when he was surrounded by police. He said it seemed like a lot of manpower for a low-level drug suspect.
When he arrived at the sheriff's office, a detective asked, "Where's the gun?" Clay said he didn't understand.
"He said, 'Mr. Clay, we've got a serious problem here. You're being charged with first-degree murder.'"
Randy Martindale had been gunned down in the bedroom of his home. Authorities alleged Stacy Martindale wanted her husband dead and unsuccessfully tried to convince Sanders to do it. Authorities said she then turned to Clay.
Clay said he doesn't know who killed Randy Martindale. Stacy Martindale was convicted of second-degree murder for her role and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.