July 26, 2014

Ruling against California death penalty could be raised in Missouri execution cases

A federal judge in California has ruled that state’s death penalty takes so long to be carried out it breaks the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling could have an impact on cases in Missouri.

Washington University Professor Peter Joy

Washington University Professor Peter Joy

The judge ruled that delays of 25 years or more for appeals and the rarely carrying out of executions by California mean that state’s death penalty has become arbitrary and pointless.

Washington University Law Professor Peter Joy says the ruling could come up in Missouri cases.

“Any lawyer representing somebody on death row who’s been on death row for a lengthy period of time should raise this argument now because there is this decision out there,” says Joy.

About 40 percent of California’s death row inmates have been there more than 19 years. Three Missouri inmates have been awaiting execution for 25 years, and about 22 percent of condemned Missouri inmates have been waiting 19 years or more.

Not all the delays cited by the judge stem from appeals.

Joy says also noted were, “delays [related to] the system itself, and have nothing to do with the person filing a lot of appeals.”

“Out in California,” says Joy, “There’s a much lengthier time before the court finds someone to appoint as a lawyer to represent people that have been convicted in their appeals and post-conviction relief. There isn’t that lengthy a time here in Missouri but there are still issues with the way the process works that take a long time.”

The issue could be raised by attorneys for Michael Shane Worthington, who Missouri is scheduled to execute August 6 and who has been awaiting execution for 15 years.

Family remembers victims after Missouri executes John Middleton

Triple-killer John Middleton died peacefully at 7:06 p.m. yesterday evening, strapped to a gurney in the Bonne Terre prison’s death chamber after a frantic two-day effort by his attorneys to save his life.     Middleton was sentenced to death in 1997, two years after he murdered Alfred Pinegar.  He later was sentenced to death for the murders  of Randy Hamilton and Stacey Hodge, also in 1995.

“You are killing an innocent man,” he said in his last statement.

Middleton barely moved as the lethal injection of pentobarbital was administered, turning his head slightly to the right after looking toward three members of his family when the curtains on the execution chambers windows were opened.  He showed no signs of distress or discomfort.

“Nineteen years seems like a long time to wait for justice,” said Michael Black, an uncle of Alfred Pinegar, after the execution, “It’s a lifetime for a little girl who had to grow up without her father…Our family has waited all this time, never forgetting that our son, grandson, uncle, nephew, father and best friend is not with us.”

Albert Pinegar

Albert Pinegar

“In those 19 years, we, as a family, have had to live with the thoughts of John Middleton being able to enjoy a meal, the smell of spring in the air or any number of simple pleasures,” he continued, “These are things that Alfred, Randy and Stacey cannot enjoy . These simple things we cannot share with Alfred.”

Black said he can go to Pinegar’s grave “and tell him it’s done now; he has finally been punished for his crimes.”

Middleton, a methamphetamine user and dealer in northwest Missouri, murdered the three, considering them “snitches” who had informed law enforcement about his meth dealings.

His attorneys repeatedly filed appeals in the last few days, asserting that Middleton was mentally ill and delusional, therefore exempt from execution under federal standards that prohibit the execution of the mentally ill.  They also claimed a new witness, never identified, had stepped forward who could attest to Middleton’s innocence.

Although federal District Judge Catherine Perry twice issued stays, saying Middleton’s claims of insanity should be given proper judicial review, the 8th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned both of her stays.  The United States Supreme Court also rejected requests for stays.

The final hope for a stay, an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, was rejected about 5 p.m. in a withering opinion by a divided court (4-3) holding that a  doctor’s opinion about Middleton’s mental condition not  “even approaches a substantial threshold showing that Middleton suffers from…delusions”.  Instead, said the court, Middleton “plainly understands he is to be executed as punishment because he was found guilty of murdering his three victims; he simply believes “his chances of escaping execution.”

Events moved quickly after that decision.

According to a Corrections Department timeline, Governor Nixon denied clemency at 6:08.  The department was notified two minutes later than all pending petitions had been denied by the U. S. Supreme Court.   The rest of the timeline:

6:21–Middleton was moved to the execution chamber.

6:24–Execution warrant read to Middleton

6:37–Witnesses begin to move into their viewing positions.

6:52–U. S. Supreme Court denies an additional stay application

6:55–Prison officials get word of the action.

6:56–Attorney General Chris Koster gives go-ahead.

6:57–Governor Nixon says execution can proceed.

6:58–Injection of five grams of Pentobarbital begins.

7:00–Five minute timer set.

7:05–Medical personnel enter the chamber to look for vital signs

7:06–Middleton pronounced dead.

AUDIO: Mike Black 2:42

SCOMO splits; says “no” to Middleton

A divided state supreme court strongly rejected prison inmate John Middleton’s contention that he is mentally unfit to be executed this evening.

The court  ruled 4-3 in a scathing opinion that a doctor’s opinion about Middleton’s mental condition “even approaches a substantial threshold showing that Middleton suffers from…delusions”.  Instead, says the majority of the court, Middleton “plainly understands he is to be executed as punishment because he was found guilty of murdering his three victims; he simply believes he should not have been convicted.”

The court says the only thing he is delusional about is “his chances of escaping execution.”

Other appeals remain possible. Governor Nixon has not said whether he will allow clemency to Middleton but he seldom does grant it. He won’t make his announcement until all appeals have ended.







Execution closer for Middleton

The federal circuit court of appeals has moved prison inmate John Middleton one step closer to execution this evening, refusing to reconsider an order issued by a panel of the court’s judges lifting a stay of execution. The stay had been issued by a district court judge who says Middleton’s mental state merits a stay.

The stay of execution, however, will not be lifted until 6 o’clock, giving Middleton’s legal team time to file appeals with the United States Supreme Court–which turned down appeals yesterday–and with the Missouri Supreme Court, which has not considered claims that Middleton is mentally unfit for execution. The judges on the circuit court of appeals say the federal court system cannot consider his mental condition until it has been considered through the state court system. However, Middleton attorney Joe Perkovich told the Missourinet earlier this week that Missouri laws have no provision for such an appeal.

Inside the prison at Bonne Terre, Middleton waits in a holding cell a short distance from the execution chamber. In another part of the prison, a minister, a Middleton sister and a Middleton niece are waiting to learn if they will be witnesses to his execution. In a separate room, seven relatives of two of Middleton’s three victims in 1995 wait for the same thing.


Middleton stay to be lifted at 6 p.m.



A panel of the Eight Circuit Appeals Court has lifted a lower court’s stay of execution for John Middleton.  But the order will not go into effect until 6 p.m.  Middleton’s attorneys have asked for the full appeals court to review  the findings.

The three-judge panel has put the stay in effect until 6 p.m. so Middleton’s legal team can take the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. 

Middleton’s lawyers say he should not be executed because he is insane.  Although a district judge ruled that the execution should be delayed until a hearing clears up that issue, the  appeals court says the real test should be decided  by the Missouri Supreme Court first. 

The appeals court judges say District Judge Catherine Perry abused her position by granting an indefinite stay “because Middleton has not shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits” of his federal claims.  And it says federal courts cannot grant stays until Middleton has exhausted all of his claims in the state court system.  The appeals judges say the way the federal court rules on a stay can be influenced by the findings of the state court. 

Middleton remains in his small cell about fifty feet from the execution chamber at the Bonne Terre prison.  The warrant for his execution is good until 11:59 tonight.