GUEST COMMENTARY: Consider new evidence in case of inmate scheduled to be executed

Thursday, July 10, 2014 | 5:26 p.m. CDT

Missouri officials, hooked it seems in a demented habit of conducting (now monthly) executions, risk killing potentially a wrongly convicted man, John Middleton, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

Gov. Jay Nixon would exercise wise leadership by at least staying Middleton's execution — and convening a board of inquiry or allowing courts time to name a special chief to consider recently uncovered evidence.

Middleton, 54, was convicted and sentenced to death for the June 1995 murders of three people in northern Missouri: Al Pinegar in Harrison County and Randy Hamilton and Stacey Hodge in Mercer County.

Corrected forensic evidence indicates Pinegar was murdered at a time Middleton was being held on suspicion of a misdemeanor in an Iowa jail 50 miles away. Earlier this year an investigator also located a witness, beaten unconscious by two men. Both were lead witnesses against Middleton but might instead have committed the drug-related murders themselves.

"When I came to (and) tried to get up, I rolled on to the dead body" of Pinegar, recalls the man in a February affidavit. His name was redacted to protect his identity.

Hours before, he had been pummeled by Dan Spurling with a baseball bat while Lynn Trammel held him. He’d been selling methamphetamine for Spurling, a major dealer in the area.

"They thought I was a snitch and brought me to the body to send a message," Spurling said. "'There's already been three people killed. You want to be number four?'"

They repeatedly struck him across his body, including his head, rendering him unconscious. The men then kidnapped his fiancée and raped her repeatedly, he reports later learning from her.

After Spurling chased the man with a gun, some time later, he sought out law enforcement, reporting what happened to them, he said, but "nothing really happened."

Trammel acknowledged the baseball bat assault during a 1995 interview with a highway patrolman. Middleton's current attorneys sought the man out after uncovering that report. It was the first time he said any of his lawyers had approached him.

Rather than considering the two as murder suspects, officials at the time treated them more as collaborative guides. Iowa law enforcement officials dismissed weapons and drug possession charges against Spurling, while Harrison and Grundy county sheriffs paid him $1,000 in exchange for his cooperation in the murder cases against Middleton.

A court document filed earlier this year by Middleton’s attorneys termed the pair "inveterate liars," noting their version of events varied dramatically in at least 10 chronicled interviews with law enforcement officials.

A highway patrol officer incorrectly reported the date of Pinegar's autopsy to MU forensics expert Robert Hall. Current attorneys found the coroner conducted her exam on June 26, 1995, moments after the officer collected entomological evidence, bugs taken from the decomposing corpse and preserved to examine their development and determine the time of death.

Once Hall was alerted this past February to the inaccurate date he received nearly 20 years ago, he corrected his report to project Pinegar likely was killed the afternoon of June 24. At that time Middleton was in jail, law enforcement officials in Decatur City, Iowa, law enforcement reported.

There’s no doubt: Middleton, along with Spurling and Trammel, were meth dealers. But the murders? Middleton has always professed his innocence. Emerging evidence certainly does implicate others while a troubling cloud of doubt hangs over this case.

Law enforcement officers appeared to have conducted a rather shoddy and narrow-focused investigation. No physical evidence ties Middleton to the murders. Prosecutors relied almost exclusively on the testimony of witnesses, many with something to gain by cooperating.

Most all of the 75 men executed in Missouri since 1989 were indeed guilty as charged, but at least a half dozen had strong claims of being wrongly convicted. Nationwide, 144 men and women, convicted and sentenced to death, have been exonerated, including four in Missouri, during the past four decades. Beyond the horrible, unwarranted loss of freedom, each wrongful execution also tragically allows the real perpetrator(s) to victimize more people.

We mourn the three individuals killed and for all murder victims, extending condolences to their grieving loved ones. The Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation also opposes all executions, seeing each state killing as a premeditated murder, squandering a precious human life and causing more people needlessly to become mourners.

Regardless of one’s perspective on the death penalty, all should concur our society is ill served by executing the wrongly convicted. Killing John Middleton could well be such a travesty of justice.

Please urge Gov. Nixon to stay the execution and convene an independent board of inquiry by calling 751-3222, e-mailing, or tweeting him @GovJayNixon.

Attend a "Vigil for Life," from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesday outside the Governor's Office, second floor of the Capitol in Jefferson City and/or from 5to 6 p.m. at the Boone County Courthouse, 705 E. Walnut Street in Columbia. For more information, call 449-4585.

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

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