The Justice Project - Profile of Injustice

Joseph Amrine

Joseph Amrine had already picked out the music for his funeral by the time the Missouri State Supreme Court narrowly overturned his death sentence. Amrine was charged, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of fellow inmate Gary “Fox” Barber in 1986 while serving a prison sentence for robbery, burglary and forgery. Inadequately defended and convicted on weak circumstantial evidence and snitch testimony, Amrine was sentenced to death in a 1986 Missouri murder trial. He lost four appeals before the Missouri Supreme Court reversed his conviction in 2003 based on recantations of three inmate snitches and the testimony of a prison guard who saw the murder. Three months after the Court’s decision, a local prosecutor announced that he would not seek a new trial against Amrine based on new DNA tests. After spending 17 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Joseph
Amrine was finally freed on July 28, 2003.

Throughout his murder trial, the prosecution’s case rested on circumstantial and conflicting evidence. The state failed to link Amrine to the scene through physical evidence. Instead, the state presented three inmates who maintained they saw Amrine stab Barber – all with inconsistent statements in their depositions. The first inmate to come forward, Terry Russell, was himself identified as a suspect by corrections officer John Noble. Six other inmates stated that Amrine was elsewhere playing cards at the time of the killing. Even with a solid alibi and unreliable evidence against him, Amrine was unable to win an acquittal at trial. Amrine’s state-appointed counsel failed to present any mitigating evidence. He never impeached witnesses with prior inconsistent statements. During sentencing, he never objected to false testimony regarding a prior alleged stabbing by Amrine. The jury foreman in the case later admitted that, in spite of all the evidence supporting Amrine’s innocence in depositions, the jury “didn’t have much trouble deciding that Mr. Amrine was guilty” after hearing the actual trial. On October 30, 1986, the jury convicted Amrine of murder and sentenced him to death.

Appeals and Recantations
At a post-conviction hearing in 1989, two of Amrine’s three accusers – Terry Russell and Randall Ferguson – recanted their testimony, and the third accuser, Jerry Poe, recanted his in 1997. All three later admitted in letters, videotaped depositions, and signed affidavits that they lied as a result of threats and promises by the authorities or fear of rape and violence from other inmates. At a 1998 federal district court hearing, in fact, Russell admitted he lied to deflect suspicion of the murder away from himself. Even as these recantations became known, Amrine’s four appeals and his application for pardon to Missouri Governor Bob Holden were denied. Before 1997, appeals courts claimed that, even though the other accusers had recanted, Jerry Poe’s testimony still implicated Amrine. After Poe recanted, courts maintained that his retraction could not be relied upon. By 2003, Amrine’s appellate counsel, Sean O’Brien and Kent Gipson, made significant progress in obtaining justice for their client. While his execution date was actively sought by the state, Amrine appealed to the Supreme Court of Missouri. Assistant Attorney General Frank Jung argued that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the case, regardless of the evidence pointing to Amrine’s innocence, because there was no constitutional violation during his first trial. Jung actually urged the court to execute Amrine even if it found him to be innocent. Four of the seven Missouri Supreme Court Justices disagreed and overturned Amrine’s conviction. In their decision, they established “actual innocence” as a Missouri standard in which the Court can reserve the right to overturn sentences upon their “loss of confidence” in a capital case, even if that case contains no technical errors. Judge Richard B. Teitelman wrote the opinion for the majority, noting that Amrine had indeed proven that a “manifest injustice” would occur without habeas relief even though the conviction was the product of an otherwise fair trial: “It is difficult to imagine a more manifestly unjust and unconstitutional result than permitting the execution of an innocent person.” Two months after his conviction was overturned, local prosecutor Bill Tacket filed new murder charges against Amrine. One month later, however, Tacket announced that he would no longer seek a new trial, noting that there was absolutely no evidence to implicate Amrine. Joe Amrine, who spent 26 years in prison – 17 of which were on death row – would have left jail a free man in 1992 had he not been wrongly convicted for Barber’s murder. Just before his sentence was overturned, Amrine had chosen the song “I Feel Like Going Home” for his funeral. “That’s how I felt,” he later said, “like going home.” On July 28, 2003, after spending almost two decades on death row for a crime he did not commit, Joseph Amrine was finally released from prison. From there he made it home – to his family.