Joe Amrine selected the music for his funeral service.
He wasn't sick, nor was he elderly. He was on Missouri's death row awaiting lethal injection.
In November 2001, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon asked the Missouri Supreme Court to set an execution date for Amrine and nine other men on death row. The court complied in six cases, but delayed in Amrine's case. By then a groundswell of support built for his exoneration in part because of a documentary, "Unreasonable Doubt: the Joe Amrine Case," by a group of university graduate students.
The Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy agency of the state's bishops, distributed the video widely in their efforts to seek Amrine's release. The bishops' agency advocated on Amrine's behalf and now uses his example in citing reasons to oppose the death penalty.
Convicted in 1986 of the murder of fellow prison inmate Gary Barber at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Amrine, now 60, was released from prison in 2003 after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence. He'd spent 17 years on death row after being sent to prison originally in 1977 on a robbery charge. Three fellow inmates who had testified against him later recanted, admitting that they lied in exchange for favorable treatment. Six other inmates had testified earlier that Amrine was in another area of the prison playing cards when Barber was stabbed.
Amrine and fellow exoneree Reggie Griffin visited St. Louis May 20 to speak at a public event at the St. Louis Galleria hosted by Lush Cosmetics and the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. The talk was consistent with views of Pope Francis, who last year encouraged all people to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also for the improvement of prison conditions, "so that they fully respect the human dignity of those incarcerated."
Rita Linhardt, senior staff associate for the Missouri Catholic Conference and chair of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said serious concerns have been raised about the death penalty as public policy because of wrongful convictions, questions of fairness and the costs of the death penalty. For every nine executions in this country, one person who received a death sentence was found to be wrongly convicted. Reasons innocent people are convicted, she said, include ineffective assistance of counsel, flawed evidence, faulty eyewitness testimony and police and prosecutorial misconduct.
Exonerations highlight flaws in the death penalty, Linhardt said: "We can see where mistakes are made."
Faith was a factor in his survival, Amrine said: "It would be hard for anyone to be on death row and not somehow get some faith. You gotta believe in something to survive on death row."
He appreciates the position the Catholic Church has taken against the death penalty and wants to see more follow its lead. "We need Christians, Muslims and everyone to come up and say they're against the death penalty under any circumstances," he said.
Amrine once was in favor of the death penalty but his experience showed him that it sometimes is imposed on innocent people, and "it can't be applied equally."
Griffin, 56, grew up in St. Louis and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for first-degree assault, robbery and possession of drugs and stolen property. While at the Moberly Correctional Center, he was accused of the murder of inmate James Bausley, who had been stabbed in the prison yard. Griffin denied he'd been in the yard at the time but was convicted in 1988 on the word of two jailhouse informants who received reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony.
In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence because prosecutors had withheld a sharpened screwdriver recovered from another inmate immediately after the stabbing. Both of Griffin's co-defendants consistently said the third person involved in the crime was that inmate, not Griffin.
Griffin, released from prison in 2013, said that "none of the things that happened for me and to me could not and would not have happened without the grace of God."
Amrine and Griffin — African American men who were convicted by all-white juries in trials that lasted just a few days — give two or three talks a week and have been to several Catholic schools, mostly in the Kansas City area. They'll be in St. Louis Sept. 28 to speak to student representatives of Catholic high schools at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. Amrine said he speaks out because "the Lord blessed me to put me out here. He wasn't through with me. We speak out against the death penalty, gangs, drugs, lawyers ... I did 26 years, he did 33. That qualifies us as experts."
For someone wrongfully convicted, Griffin said, "when the state seeks the death sentence against you, you have a chance of losing your life. If the evidence comes out after you're executed, they can't bring you back."
>> Catholics respond
The Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) has launched a new initiative, named the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty. "Due to growing public opposition to the death penalty and especially in the aftermath of last month executions in Arkansas, CMN has launched this pledge to amplify the Church's work to end the death penalty," said Karen Clifton, executive director of CMN.
Catholic Mobilizing Network maintains the pledge as an important initiative that lifts up the value of all human life. The pledge is a way to lift up the call of the Catholic Church and Pope Francis in particular to end the use of the death penalty and promote a more restorative criminal justice system.
In the recent session of the Missouri legislature, the Missouri Catholic Conference supported three bills that would have ended capital punishment in Missouri. The Catholic Conference, the public policy agency of the U.S. bishops, referred to the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" (paragraph 2267) and stated that "the death penalty undermines respect for human life and errors in the judicial system can lead to the execution of innocent people."
The proposed legislation stalled in the legislative process. Two of the bills in the House were read for a second time and the Senate bill was referred to a committee.
• The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, www.catholicsmobilizing.org
• Missouri Catholic Conference Messenger on the death penalty, www.stlouisreview.com/bMF
• Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, www.madpmo.org
• U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.stlouisreview.com/bML
Joe Amrine and Reggie Griffin are two of 159 inmates in the United States and four in Missouri who have been exonerated after landing on death row.
Last month Bishop Frank J. Dewane, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, decried plans by the sate of Arkansas to execute seven men in 11 days, saying that justice and mercy are better served by commuting their sentences to life imprisonment.
At a recent event in St. Louis in which Amrine and Griffin told their story, Maggie Baine of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville explained that changing public policy on the death penalty is a cause she deeply cares about. Pope Francis made a passionate plea for a moratorium on executions during the Year of Mercy, reminding listeners that "Thou shalt not kill" (the fifth commandment) applies not only to the innocent but to the guilty as well. Baine said she agrees fully with Church teaching.
"For the innocent and well as guilty people, we believe there's not a reason to end their lives," Baine said.
The Pew Research Center reported last fall that the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder now is at its lowest point in more than four decades.
During a debate last year in the Missouri Senate, Sen. Paul Wieland, R-Imperial, said he too is guided by his Catholic faith and the need to be consistent in his pro-life beliefs to protect all human life, even those guilty of murder. He also raised concern about executing an innocent person. "All it would take is one mistake," Wieland said. "We're not operating it as a zero percent margin of error."
"One sign of hope is that public opinion is manifesting a growing opposition to the death penalty, even as a means of legitimate social defense. Indeed, nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God's plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice. Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."
Pope Francis' message to 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty on June 22, 2016
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