USA | States Continue to Oppose DNA Testing in Death Penalty Appeals, Attorneys Ask Why Don’t They Want to Learn the Truth?

The last 3 men scheduled for execution in Georgia said they did not commit the killing and that DNA testing that was not available at the time of trial could prove it. In 2 of the cases, victim family members supported the request for testing. Prosecutors opposed the requests, and the courts refused to allow the testing. 2 of the 3 men were executed, with doubts still swirling as to their guilt.
Shawn Nolan, a federal defender who represented Georgia prisoner Ray “Jeff” Cromartie, summed up the sentiments of the prisoners, families, and defense attorneys in these cases. “I’d like to know what the state is so scared of,” he said. “Why are they afraid of the truth? This is sad and so disturbing.”
“We have the capability of testing a wide range of forensic evidence that we couldn’t test in the past,” said Death Penalty Information Center Executive Director Robert Dunham. “It is a powerful tool to get to the truth and to get important answers as to whether the criminal legal system has b…

Missouri: The quality of mercy

Late Wednesday afternoon the Missouri Supreme Court postponed for at least 30 days the state's plans to administer the death penalty for the first time in almost three years. It was the correct decision.

We say that not only because this editorial page long has opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, believing that it has no place in a civilized society. And in this particular case, the arguments against the ultimate punishment are particularly strong.

Dennis J. Skillicorn, 49, was to have been executed at 12:01 a.m. next Wednesday even though he did not kill Richard Drummond, the crime for which he was convicted in Lafayette County in 1996. Skillicorn was half a mile away when his buddy, Allen Nicklasson, shot Mr. Drummond, 47, of Excelsior Springs.

The jury knew that when it convicted Skillicorn as an accessory to capital murder. But the prosecutor in the case had painted Skillicorn as the ringleader among the three men convicted in Mr. Drummond's death. The trio had traveled from Kansas City to St. Louis to buy drugs, and the men were returning to Kansas City on Aug. 23, 1994, when their car broke down on Interstate 70, 22 miles east of Kingdom City. Mr. Drummond, a telephone company technician, stopped to help them. The third member of the group, Tim DeGraffenreid, 17 at the time of the crime, was convicted of second-degree murder. Skillicorn and Nicklasson both were sentenced to death. But Nicklasson, last month swore in an affadavit that "I have maintained from the day of my arrest, October 5, 1994, that Dennis had absolutely no knowledge that I would murder Mr. Richard Drummond."

Just as important and perhaps more so is that since he's been in prison, Skillicorn has been an exemplary citizen, a rare moderating influence in a place as one inmate put it "full of vampires."

If the fact Skillicorn had very little to do with the actual murder isn't enough to convince Gov. Blunt to commute his sentence, perhaps his record as a model prisoner will. The Supreme Court's action should help him consider that record more completely. Skillicorn's lawyers had been denied access to prison staff and inmates as part of their efforts to draw up a clemency petition. On Wednesday, the court said this amounted to "obstruction of clemency advocacy."

Skillicorn's lawyers now have one month to do conduct interviews on a voluntary basis with the people who know Skillicorn best. It's in the best interest of the Department of Corrections to cooperate.

As Neal Turnbrough, a former guard at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point, put it: "You'd like to have a whole prison of Dennises; it makes the job easier."

Skillicorn is a leader in several Christian prison ministries. He helped create a hospice program to care for inmates who are sick and dying. He is the editor of "Compassion," a bi-monthly newsletter for death row inmates nationwide, the mission of which is "promoting restorative justice and reconciliation."

Among the letters sent to Gov. Blunt on behalf of Skillicorn's petition for clemency is one from a fellow death row inmate who wrote, "You got a lot of love in you, my brother. And as I sit here knocking on heaven's door, I will go forth and take with me your strength and honor and total compassion, whether I go forth in this life or the next."

The letter was written by Marlin Gray, executed by the state of Missouri on Oct. 26, 2005. The death chamber at the prison in Bonne Terre has since gone unused as Missouri and the nation again have wrestled with issues related to capital punishment.

In April, the United States Supreme Court ruled, 7-2, that the lethal injection procedure used to administer the death penalty in Kentucky wasnot "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment. Because 37 of the 38 states that permit capital punishment using a three-drug process similar to Kentucky's, the death penalty had been on hold while the Kentucky case worked its way to a decision by the high court.

A similar challenge to the constitutionality of lethal injection had been brought in Missouri. The state, it turned out, did not have a formal written execution protocol. Dr. Alan Doerhoff, a Jefferson City surgeon who had supervised most of the executions in Missouri, admitted that he was dyslexic and that he sometimes had made mistakes while administering doses of the execution drugs.

A Post-Dispatch investigation revealed that Dr. Doerhoff also had been sued for medical malpractice some 20 times and that David Pinkley, a nurse who had worked with Dr. Doerhoff, was on probation for legal problems unrelated to his profession.

Larry Crawford, director of the Missouri Department of Corrections, says those problems have been corrected. Yet how tragic that a model prisoner who never actually pulled a trigger might become the test case for the new procedures and staff.

The state has a neatly-typed, 5-page execution protocol that is a public document, setting forth in precise language the procedures to be followed; the dosages of each drug to be administered and in what order; the veins in which IV lines are to be inserted (primary and secondary); the position of the gurney and the timing of the procedure.

A key change, Mr. Crawford said, is that the execution team now is supposed to wait three minutes after the injection of the 1st drug: 5 grams of thiopental. During that waiting period, medical personnel are supposed to enter the death chamber and check to ensure that the drug, a heavy barbiturate, has taken effect and has rendered the inmate unconscious. Only then may the 2nd drug, a paralyzing agent, and the 3rd drug, which stops the heart, be administered.

"I've talked to a lot of medical people in recent months," Mr. Crawford said, "and they all tell me that if you had to pick a way to die, this is the way to go."

Another key change: The process is to be overseen by a board-certified anesthesiologist who is assisted by a licensed practical nurse. A licensed pharmacist will prepare the drugs. Mr. Crawford said these arrangements exceed court-ordered standards, which permit a nurse or an emergency medical technician to supervise executions.

A recently enacted state law makes the identities of medical personnel involved in state executions a secret, along with the identity of the corrections department employee assigned to start the flow of the drugs.

This confidentiality may be important to the anesthesiologist hired by the state. The ethical guidelines of the American Medical Association and the American Society of Anesthesiologists forbid physicians from participating directly or indirectly in executions.

Dennis Skillicorn's best hope for avoiding these people lies with his request for clemency from Gov. Blunt. That's why it's important that corrections officers and inmates be encouraged to talk about the Dennis Skillicorn they have come to know in the last 12 years.

If the death penalty must be imposed, it must be reserved for the worst of the worse, not for someone who may have had no idea what his partner was planning. As punishment for his participation, Skillicorn deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison, a sentence that would have the added benefit of letting him continue the good works to which he has devoted his life since being sent to Potosi. Religious groups from around the state have appealed for clemency, noting the tremendously positive influence Skillicorn has on other inmates.

Skillicorn's lawyers, led by Jennifer A. Merrigan of the Public Interest Litigation Center in Kansas City, also are challenging the the way the state developed its execution protocol: adopting it without presenting it for public comment or review by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Corrections.

In St. Louis on Wednesday, Mr. Blunt was asked about Skillicorn's petition for clemency. His reply was non-commital, saying only that "I spend a great deal of time going over the information with my staff. It's the most serious thing we do within our criminal justice system, and it's a responsibility that I take very seriously."

We hope Mr. Blunt will encourage Mr. Crawford and his staff to speak openly about Skillicorn's record. A full and open review would be a courageous step for the governor and for Missouri. In Shakespeare's words:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. . . .

Source: St. Louis Today

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