May 3, 2015

Proposed reforms of Missouri city courts to legislative conference

The state House and Senate are trying to reach an agreement on reforms to Missouri’s municipal courts.

Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale)

Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale)

Both chambers have laid out what they want to change about Missouri’s law that limits how much of a city’s annual revenue can come from traffic tickets and fines. Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale) told Missourinet the two sides have to work out differences.

“Representative Diehl had the municipal standards language that we want to make sure we go through,” said Schmitt. “In the House Committee they changed the percentages.”

The amendment from House Speaker John Diehl (R-Town and Country) would create minimum standards for local governments in St. Louis County including having a balanced budget and the setting of standards for police departments including a written policy on the use of force.

The state House and Senate both propose lowering from 30-percent to 20-percent in most of the state the amount of annual revenue a city can get from traffic tickets and fines. The Senate, though, would lower that to 10-percent in “suburban areas,” while the House would lower it to 15-percent only in St. Louis County.

Representative Clem Smith (photo courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Representative Clem Smith (photo courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Representative Clem Smith (D-Velda Village Hills) told Missouri House Communications he felt many St. Louis County lawmakers were left out of that discussion.

“In this bill, rural individuals were able to keep 20-percent of traffic revenue while St. Louis County was penalized to get 15-percent. I thought the idea was that everybody was equal,” said Smith.

Representative Margo McNeil (D-Florissant) didn’t like the proposal to use two different percentages.

“I’m a little put off by the fact that we are doing things to St. Louis County that we wouldn’t do to the rest of the state,” said McNeil.

Representative Robert Cornejo (R-St. Peters) didn’t disagree, but said the bill needs to advance so that the rate is lowered from 30-percent.

“Our constituents would be mighty mad at us if we set up our state budget on, a third of it, on traffic tickets,” Cornejo said.

Petition: release Missouri man in prison 21 years for pot crimes (VIDEO)

State lawmakers, attorneys, and some citizens are continuing to ask Governor Jay Nixon to release from prison a man who has been there for more than two decades for marijuana-related offenses.

Representative Shamed Dogan (center) and Chris Mizanskey (to Dogan's left) deliver a petition to Governor Nixon asking for an early release for Chris' father Jeff Mizanskey, who is serving life in prison under a sentencing law that Missouri has since taken off the books.  (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Shamed Dogan (center) and Chris Mizanskey (to Dogan’s left) deliver a petition to Governor Nixon asking for an early release for Chris’ father Jeff Mizanskey, who is serving life in prison under a sentencing law that Missouri has since taken off the books. (Photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Supporters of Jeff Mizanskey have delivered a petition with nearly 400,000 signatures to the governor requesting clemency for him.

The signatures of 128 legislators were among those submitted on the petition.

Representative Paul Fitzwater (R-Potosi) says in Mizanskey’s case, the punishment does not fit the crime. “Mr. Mizanskey has served his sentence far greater than the crime committed and we need to see that justice is given to Mr. Mizanskey.”

According to Fitzwater, during Mizanskey’s 21 years in prison, he’s had two infractions. One was for a messy floor and the other was for putting a piece of mail in the wrong slot at the mailroom.

Representative Kevin Engler (R-Farmington) says the Legislature needs to take a look at the time criminals serve in prison for certain offenses.

“Do the taxpayers really want to pay for these types of criminals being in that long?” asked Engler. “It’s one thing to do some correction. It’s another thing to put them away forever.

The petition is the second such effort launched on Mizanskey’s behalf.  Earlier this year, a House Committee chaired by Fitzwater also held a hearing on a bill offered by Representative Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) that would free Mizanskey if passed.

Missouri Senate sued over filming of hearings

The state Senate is the target of a lawsuit over access to its committee hearings.

The Senate Lounge; one of the places the Missouri Senate holds public hearings.  (photo courtesy; Missouri Senate Communications)

The Senate Lounge; one of the places the Missouri Senate holds public hearings. (photo courtesy; Missouri Senate Communications)

Liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri has filed a lawsuit against the state senate saying some senators who chair committees – it names Mike Kehoe, David Sater, and Mike Parson – have denied it permission to video record committee hearings.

Director Sean Nicholson says his group has been trying to work with the Senate on the issue for a couple of years.

“The sunshine law says that any member of the public has the right to record video or audio of public hearings of public bodies,” said Nicholson. “The Senate committees are some of those public bodies just like your city council or school board.”

Sater, a senator from Cassville, says he’s following the Senate’s rules, “Which states persons with cameras, flash cameras, lights, or other paraphernalia, may be allowed to use such devices at committee meetings with the permission of the chairman as long as they do not prove disruptive to the decorum of the committee.”

Nicholson says Progress Missouri hasn’t been the only entity told not to record in Senate committees.

“Senator Parson, a couple of weeks ago, said no video or still photos of any kind was allowed. There was a blanket denial for members of the press, members of the public, everyone. He threatened to kick people out of the hearing if they pulled out their I-phone just to take a snapshot of what was happening. We’ve seen press reports of KRCG cameras getting kicked out or not being allowed to take video,” said Nicholson.

Some senators say the chamber’s communications staff makes video and audio available to media outlets, but Nicholson says that doesn’t always happen.

“The Senate should be providing video and live streams of everything as a service, but they aren’t and they don’t have the staff or the technology to do that,” Nicholson argues.

In order to defend its position, the Senate must prove in court its rules are not a violation of the state’s open records and meetings law. Due to the open litigation, the Senate has declined comment but cites its rules giving committee chairmen power to allow or reject cameras.

The office of Attorney General Chris Koster says it will provide counsel to the Senate and “vigorously defend the legislature in this matter.”

Missouri Corrections’ Puppies for Parole celebrates 3,000th adoption

A program that lets Missouri inmates prepare abandoned or unwanted dogs for adoption has reached a milestone.

Jan was the 3,000th dog to be adopted from the program.  Jan sits with her new owner Amelia Blanton.  (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

Jan was the 3,000th dog to be adopted from the program. Jan sits with her new owner Amelia Blanton. (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

The Missouri Department of Corrections’ Puppies for Parole program has celebrated its’ 3,000th adoption since it began in 2010.  A ceremony was held Thursday at the Eastern Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne, Terre.  Jan, the 3,000th dog to be adopted from the program, was adopted by Amelia Blanton of St. Louis.

Corrections Director George Lombardi was there.

“We had no idea when we started this obviously that we would reach such a tremendous number of dogs that we’ve basically saved from either being euthanized or living their life out in a cage,” said Lombardi.

Lombardi said the program primarily receives dogs that are unadoptable.

“We get dogs that have to be carried in because they are so scared of anything and everybody, dogs that are on three limbs, dogs that are blind, dogs that are deaf … and the guys and the ladies have turned them into wonderful pets,” said Lombardi.

The program is funded solely by donations and is in 19 of the 20 state prisons in Missouri.  Lombardi said it’s the largest corrections dog program in the country.

Lombardi said there are multiple benefits to the program.

One of Jan's handlers shows those in attendance her high-five trick. (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

One of Jan’s handlers shows those in attendance her high-five trick. (Photo courtesy of David Owen)

“It saves the dogs, helps the shelters, makes a transformative process for offenders, makes our prisons just a little bit safer and a little less tense,” said Lombardi.  “The dogs have an enormous impact, not only on the handlers, but they walk around the yard and everybody gets a smile on their face, everybody is a little bit happier.”

Lombardi said not only do the dogs become great pets, but the offenders are changed as well.

“They learn responsibility, they learn compassion, which is a quality often missing in offenders, they learn cooperation between and among themselves,” said Lombardi.  “So, these are really important qualities that when they are released will serve them well.”

Two offenders work with each dog to train them to pass the AKC’s Canine Good Citizenship test.  Lombardi said the dogs are put up for adoption generally after 8 weeks of training or once they are ready to become pets.  Lombardi said those who have been found guilty of animal abuse are not eligible for the program, but all other offenders including those with a death sentence have the opportunity to participate

“The thing about dogs is, they don’t care who you are or what you did, they’re going to love you anyway as long as you’re good to them,” said Lombardi.  “As long as their behavior is appropriate in the prison over time, so that the case worker can make an assessment of that, and an accurate one, then they are allowed to participate.”

Those looking to adopt a dog from the Puppies for Parole program can view available dogs on the Missouri Department of Corrections’ website or Facebook page.

Missouri carries out the execution of Andre Cole, its 3rd of the year

Missouri has carried out its 3rd execution of the year.  The state has executed 52-year-old Andre Cole, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 stabbing death of a friend of his ex-wife.

Andre Cole (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

Andre Cole (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

He received a lethal dose of pentobarbital at 10:15 p.m. in the execution chamber at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.  As the lethal injection took place, Cole turned his head towards members of his family as they blew him kisses.  He then took three deep breaths and closed his eyes.  His official time of death was 10:24 p.m.

The execution had been scheduled for 6 p.m. but was delayed several hours by final attempts by Cole’s attorneys to have his life spared.  Governor Jay Nixon denied an appeal for clemency for Cole at 9:44 and the U.S. Supreme Court denied multiple motions for stays, allowing the execution to proceed.

After eleven years of marriage and two children, Andre Cole and his wife Terri, divorced in 1995.  In August, 1998, Cole owed $3,000 in back child support to his ex-wife, when his employer began withholding money from his paycheck.  Cole had reportedly told several co-workers he would kill his ex-wife before giving her any more money.  Cole went to her house and broke in by throwing a car jack through a window.  Court documents say Anthony Curtis was visiting Terri that night and asked Cole to leave.  Cole stabbed Curtis 21 times killing him, before attacking Terri and stabbing her repeatedly, but she survived.

After the attack Cole fled the state but he returned to St. Louis 33 days later and turned himself into police.  DNA analysis confirmed the presence of both victims’ blood on the knife and the presence of Cole’s blood at the scene of the crime.

Cole’s lawyers tried to appeal by offering the findings of a psychiatrist that said Cole is depressed and has symptoms of psychosis, specifically delusions that keep him from understanding why he would be executed.  The Missouri Supreme Court rejected that appeal saying that he is competent, in part by reviewing audio recordings of telephone conversations in which it says Cole demonstrated that he understands his sentence and the reason for it.

There was a flurry of protests from civil rights activists and religious leaders demanding Nixon stop the execution to allow for an official review of alleged racial bias in Missouri’s jury selection process.  Cole was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in the jurisdiction that covers Ferguson, the scene of last summer’s unrest over state-sanctioned racial discrimination.  Three potential black jurors were removed from the jury pool during Cole’s case at the demand of St. Louis County prosecutors.

Protesters claim systemic racial bias within St. Louis County has put a vastly disproportionate number of black men on death row.  The recent report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that Ferguson’s municipal police and court systems displayed signs of racial bias and operated in an illegal and unconstitutional way.

Missouri currently has 19 white men, 13 black men, and no women sentenced to death.

Missouri was scheduled to carry out the execution of Kimber Edwards in May, but the State Supreme Court has lifted its execution order without explanation.  Edward’s attorneys responded on the day his execution was scheduled asking for a stay on the grounds that both have other clients with pending court proceedings that would conflict with their being able to work on his case leading up to May 12.  Missouri currently does not have another execution scheduled.