Former state judge speaks out against death penalty

Six people were executed during the judge’s tenure on the state Supreme Court.
Thursday, November 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:51 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Saying it is possible that innocent people have been executed, a former state Supreme Court judge said Wednesday night that a moratorium should be placed on the death penalty in Missouri.

Charles Blackmar, a judge on the Missouri Supreme Court from 1982 to 1992 and the Court’s chief justice from 1989 to 1991, spoke to a group of 60 people at Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia.

Blackmar relied on a 2003 case that overturned the conviction of Joseph Amrine to speak out against the death penalty.

Amrine was sentenced to death in 1986 for the killing of a fellow prison inmate while serving a 15-year sentence for robbery. But the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Amrine’s conviction last April afterthree witnesses recanted their testimony against him. Released in July, Amrine spent 26 years in prison—17 of them on death row.

“The lesson is that people were persuaded eventually that he was innocent,” Blackmar said. “But there are a fair number of people who were not guilty, and who didn’t receive such treatment and were executed.”

Blackmar, who was appointed to the Court by former Republican governor Kit Bond, said he believes capital punishment should eventually be abolished.

The Amrine case “makes me wonder how many other people there are who were wrongfully convicted,” he said. “Let’s suppose it’s only one per-cent or two percent. In my opinion, that is too many to justify maintaining capital punishment.”

Six people were executed while Blackmar served on the high court. Despite his personal opposition to the death penalty, he said he allowed executions to proceed when legal procedures were followed.

“I had sworn to support the Constitution and laws of the State of Missouri, and so I felt it was my duty to judge in accordance with the law in death cases in spite of my personal beliefs,” he said.

Blackmar spoke in public against the death penalty for the first time in February, 2003, in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Blackmar wrote to compliment the newspaper’s coverage of a man freed from Florida’s death row.

“The process is so fatally flawed that the only solution lies in abolishing capital punishment,” Blackmar said in the letter.

Gov. Bob Holden has said the Missouri system of capital punishment is fair.

“I’ll always be open to new information, but I haven’t seen any evidence that indicates that we need to change our policy in the state of Missouri,” Holden told the Associated Press in 2002.

Blackmar’s comments come at a time when the Missouri Supreme Court has shown reticenceto issue death sentences. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon has requested the Court set execution dates for six people, but no action has yet been taken.

“Never before have I been confronted by a situation in which the Court refuses to act on matters of this importance,” Nixon told the Associated Press in October. “It’s very difficult to explain to victims’ families.”

But Blackmar said the Court is waiting for all state and federal appeals to conclude before setting execution dates. He said he followed the same procedure when he was chief justice.

The Missouri Supreme Court garnered national and international attention last year, when it ruled that the practice of executing people under 18 at the time of the crime was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on that case last month, and is expected to rule on the casethis spring.

Blackmar’s speech at Calvary Episcopal Church was sponsored by the anti-death penalty interest group Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation.

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