Former inmate lobbies against death penalty

Tuesday, September 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:06 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

Joseph Amrine is making good on his pledge to fight the death penalty in Missouri.

Starting his week-long speaking tour Monday in Columbia, Amrine appeared at a rally at MU’s Lowry Mall and urged the roughly 75 people attending to take a stand against capital punishment.

“Everybody’s human. Everybody can make mistakes,” Amrine said. “Everybody knows killing ain’t right, whether in prison or out on the streets.”

Amrine was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of fellow inmate Gary Barber while Amrine was serving a 15-year sentence for robbery.

In April, though, the Missouri Supreme Court set aside Amrine’s conviction after three key witnesses retracted their testimony against him. He was recharged with first-degree murder by the Cole County prosecuting attorney but was released after the DNA evidence that tied him to the murder was deemed inconclusive by a private laboratory.

After spending 26 years in prison — 17 of them on death row — Amrine, 46, was released from a Missouri prison on July 28.

Amrine’s case gained notoriety after he was featured in a documentary called “Unreasonable Doubt: The Joe Amrine Case.” The documentary was produced by two Columbia filmmakers.

Amrine spoke at a showing of the film at the Ragtag Cinemacafe on Monday night and is scheduled to speak again after a 9 p.m. viewing tonight at the Ragtag. He is also planning additional speaking engagements at three universities in Illinois later this week.

“It’s just the luck of the draw that he’s out,” said 21-year-old MU senior Silas Allard, a member of MU’s chapter of Amnesty International. “His case should bring about a moratorium on the death penalty.”

During Monday’s rally, MU doctoral student Michael Lenza said capital punishment is an unfair practice that primarily sentences minorities and the poor to death for their crimes.

“It’s pretty much undeniable that race is a factor in who is getting the death penalty in America,” Lenza said.

Amrine urged students to take an active role in understanding the U.S. legal system and trying to abolish the death penalty.

“There are students here from all over the country, and hopefully they can take this message home with them so it might snowball,” he said.

Columbia resident Morgan Matsiga said he had been following Amrine’s case intently prior to his release in July.

“It makes you question the whole system,” Matsiga said. “It’s time for different states to take a look at what’s happening in Illinois.”

Before leaving office in January, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan suspended all executions in Illinois and cleared death row when he granted clemency to nearly 170 condemned inmates. Illinois had executed 12 convicted murderers since the state revived the death penalty in 1977.

Amrine said he was close with at least four fellow death row inmates, all of whom were executed during the 1990s.

Since his release in July, Amrine said he has enjoyed rebuilding his life while staying with his sister in Kansas City. “Whether it’s going somewhere, cooking a meal or taking a walk, everything is different,” Amrine said. “I feel like the Flintstones. I slept for 26 years, and now I’m awake.”

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