Editorial Roundup: Missouri

Kansas City Star. July 28, 2023.

Editorial: Missouri wrongly put him on death row and paid him $14. Even the guilty get more help

Everyday life is a struggle for Joe Amrine, supporters of the Missouri exoneree wrote in a GoFundMe campaign set up to bring attention to his immediate financial needs.

And the 66-year-old Kansas City man, freed from prison in 2003, could use a little help.

“Even after 20 years since his exoneration, Joe continues to face financial hardships,” organizers from Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty wrote on behalf of Amrine’s fundraiser. “He currently lives without access to water in his house, making everyday life a struggle.”

It’s not as if Amrine has his hand out. But he spent nearly two decades in prison on death row for a murder he did not commit. Let’s just say, since his release from a Missouri penitentiary, staying gainfully employed hasn’t come easy for him.

These days, Amrine cleans restrooms during Royals games at Kauffman Stadium, he told us this week. He earns about $16 per hour. “The most money I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.

On Friday, at the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Amrine will celebrate a milestone no one should ever have to commemorate: 20 years of freedom after an erroneous murder conviction was overturned.

He’ll speak at the event — about what, only God knows, Amrine said — and has plenty to say about a justice system that sends innocent people to prison but offers them little to no help reintegrating back into society.

Convicted murderers and other guilty criminals let out of Missouri prisons on parole can collect assistance for food and other social services on the state’s dime, Amrine said.

But for a death row exoneree such as Amrine, and others cleared of wrongdoing, no compensation, job placement or mental health services await.

Gov. Mike Parson vetoed bill from Parkville Republican

In Missouri, only prisoners exonerated by DNA analysis are eligible for post-conviction relief. Think about that: In our state, unless DNA evidence clears them, the wrongfully convicted are released from prison with not so much as an apology.

Need help to get on your feet? Oh well, not our problem, Missouri says. Lost earning potential while behind bars on a bad conviction? Tough luck.

Gov. Mike Parson had an opportunity to right this unconscionable wrong. But earlier this month, he vetoed a criminal justice reform bill that would have expanded opportunities for the state to pay restitution to wrongfully convicted prisoners.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican, wasn’t perfect, advocates for the wrongfully incarcerated said.

If approved, the law would not have applied retroactively to Amrine, anyway. The measure was a start, though. Too bad Parson did not sign off on Senate Bill 189.

Taxpayers around the state should not be responsible for an error made at the local level, Parson argued in rejecting the bill. Last we checked, it was local prosecutors’ job to represent the state’s interest in criminal matters.

Since his release in 2003, financial hardships have come and gone with each lost job opportunity, Amrine said. He is stressed at times, and smokes about two packs of cigarettes per day to help calm himself.

Potential employers are sometimes put off by Amrine’s criminal history. His false murder conviction still shows up on background checks.

“That stuff is still there,” he said. “Tell me that’s not wrong.”

Cleared by State Supreme Court after jailhouse informant lied

Amrine spent 17 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. False testimony — and faulty evidence — from jailhouse snitches almost cost Amrine his life.

By his count, Amrine was on death row with hundreds of inmates between 1986 and 2003, when he was fully exonerated. More than 60 of them were executed, Amrine told us.

“Can you imagine the mental and physical struggle of being on death row?” No, Joe, we can’t.

Two decades have passed since he was absolved of any wrongdoing in the 1985 prison murder of fellow inmate Gary Barber. Amrine, already serving a prison sentence for robbery, burglary and forgery, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for killing Barber.

Except he didn’t fatally stab Barber with an ice pick, as three other inmates alleged. Another prisoner did.

Amrine appealed his murder conviction. When the judges of the Missouri Supreme Court found him innocent by clear and convincing evidence, they gave the prosecution 90 days to decide whether to retry him, his attorney Sean O’Brien told us.

Two days later, lab techs said they found blood evidence and DNA extracted from Amrine’s clothing was tested, O’Brien said.

But the results were inconclusive, and as such, precluded Amrine from receiving post-conviction relief from the state.

“We had to prove his innocence the old fashioned way,” O’Brien said. Amrine was freed without any compensation. How is that a just system?

Exonerees often return home with no means of obtaining an ID or driver’s license. They have no credit or work history, and with no experience renting a place to live, finding housing is troublesome, too, advocates said. Many lack transportation.

And that conundrum, through no fault of their own, just isn’t fair to exonerees like Amrine, a father who has seven grandchildren.

As a society, don’t we owe a great deal of debt to Amrine and others who are wrongfully convicted? Not helping them rebuild their lives only prolongs the injustice.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July 26, 2023.

Editorial: Bailey and Ashcroft woo the fringe instead of doing their jobs. They should pay.

The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled the only way it was ever going to — the only way it could have — on Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s audacious attempt to prevent the state’s voters from having their say on abortion rights. In a unanimous opinion last week, the court confirmed that Bailey didn’t merely overstep his authority by refusing to validate a state audit regarding a proposed abortion-rights referendum, but that he failed to “perform a clear and unequivocal duty” as required under state law.

Though Bailey lost in court, he scored a dark victory by improperly stalling the referendum effort. As the court noted in its blunt opinion, his baseless legal maneuvering cost proponents about three months in their time-sensitive effort to get abortion rights on the ballot.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is still engaged in a similarly cynical stunt, abusing his authority by presenting ballot language for the referendum that is deliberately biased and misleading. Pro-choice activists will likely win again in court, but — again — only after another round of improper postponement of their efforts.

Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, Missouri enacted an abortion ban as strict as any in America, criminalizing the procedure from the moment of conception, even for rape and incest victims. Based on experiences in Kansas and other red states, along with recent polling here, it’s likely that even Missouri’s generally conservative voters would, if given a chance, restore some level of abortion rights.

Activists seeking such a referendum must gather the prerequisite signatures. But they can’t begin doing that until both Bailey and Ashcroft complete their respective official tasks in the process.

Bailey’s job as attorney general is to certify the state audit calculating what the proposed ballot referendum will cost Missouri in the future. That’s it. He has no authority to question those numbers, let alone substitute his own ideologically inspired math for the state auditor’s calculations.

Yet Bailey took it upon himself to reject the conclusion of state Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick (a fellow anti-abortion Republican) that the cost to the state of restoring abortion rights would be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Bailey insisted — again, with zero legal authority to do so — that it would instead be in the tens of billions of dollars, based in part on the lost future tax revenues of unborn Missourians.

As Bailey presumably knows, that’s not a valid auditing standard, even if he had the authority to demand it.

No matter. His goal was to muck up the works and stall the petition-gathering in hopes of keeping abortion rights off next year’s ballot. And he may yet have succeeded. As the state Supreme Court noted last week: “If the Attorney General had complied with his duty to approve the auditor’s fiscal note summaries in the time prescribed,” then organizers would have been able to move ahead with the petition process “nearly 100 days ago.”

Bailey, who was appointed attorney general this year to fill a vacancy, is seeking the GOP nomination to win a full term next year, which helps explain his willingness to so brazenly abuse his office in service to the anti-choice movement. Missouri’s internal Republican politics today is something of a “Hunger Games” dynamic in which primary candidates battle to get to one another’s political right.

That imperative of out-extreming the other guy also helps explain Ashcroft’s abuse of his own authority regarding the pending abortion-rights petitions.

As secretary of state, Ashcroft is legally required to create a summary statement outlining the proposed referendum. By law, that statement must be “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.”

Does anyone think Ashcroft’s proposed ballot language telling voters the referendum would “allow for dangerous, unregulated, and unrestricted abortions” remotely adheres to that standard?

Of course not. Like Bailey, Ashcroft will likely lose the suit pending against him over that language. But the point isn’t winning in court — it’s winning next year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, where Ashcroft faces a fight from his right.

Not until the vast majority of more moderate Missourians make that kind of extremist pandering politically costly will the Baileys and Ashcrofts of this state start working for the general public instead of the political fringe.

END

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