October 31, 2014

US Supreme Court stays execution of Missouri inmate Christeson (AUDIO)

The United States Supreme Court has blocked the execution of condemned triple-killer Mark Christeson less than three hours before he was to die.

Mark Christeson (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

Mark Christeson (courtesy; Missouri Department of Corrections)

Christeson and prison officials got the word shortly before 10 o’clock last night that the court had accepted one of the two appeals before it.   Justice Samuel Alito had previously rejected a challenge to the drug protocol used in executions.  Similar appeals have gone nowhere in the past.

Critics of the way Christeson’s attorneys have handled the case say the attorneys missed a deadline for seeking federal review by almost four months and did not even meet with Christeson for the first time until one month after the deadline.

The appeals do not dispute his conviction for murdering a Vichy-area woman, her son and her daughter, and throwing their bodies into a central Missouri farm pond in 1998. They focus on the failure of his attorneys to file for federal review of the convictions and sentences. The challenge, filed by three St. Louis University law professors and supported by a number of former state and federal appeals court judges say the continued presence of the two attorneys as representatives of Christeson is a conflict of interest.

Some recent executions in Missouri were delayed for a matter of hours by a court stay but were carried out before the execution warrant from the state Supreme Court expired.  Corrections Department spokesman Mike O’Connell says that won’t be the case this time.

“This is not something that was going to be cleared up in the next 24 hours, and so we would break down for the night,” O’Connell tells Missourinet.  “Everybody go home, and we’ll wait.  This is something that will have to be taken up in court.”

Once the execution warrant is allowed to expire at midnight tonight, the state Supreme Court would have to issue a new one for Christeson’s execution to be carried out.  The Court normally allows inmates and their lawyers thirty days to make final appeals after such a warrant is issued before the execution is carried out.

The U. S. court appears divided on the issue. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Scalia favored refusing to consider whether Christeson’s lawyers, as critics put it, “blew the case.”  The court has not said when it will further take up the matter.

Missouri’s next scheduled execution is that of Leonard Taylor, set for November 19, for the 1994 murder of a man working at a gas station that he robbed.

AUDIO: O’Connell interview 2:53

 

New group seeks clemency for 14 women in Missouri prisons

A new group is asking Governor Jay Nixon to grant clemency to 14 women in state prison. It says most of them were victims of domestic violence that contributed to their crimes and all have received disproportionate sentences, in some cases far harsher than those given to men convicted of the same crimes.

Former Missouri Court of Appeals Judge James R. Dowd (at the podium) is part of the newly-formed Community Coalition for Clemency. (photo courtesy; Emily Truscott, MCADSV)

Former Missouri Court of Appeals Judge James R. Dowd (at the podium) is part of the newly-formed Community Coalition for Clemency. (photo courtesy; Emily Truscott, MCADSV)

The Community Coalition for Clemency says it is not unusual for women to receive disproportionate sentences for their crimes compared to men. It argues that most of these 14 women were not directly involved in the crimes for which they are in prison, and says others participated under duress and after being abused for years. Some of those 14 women have spent more than 30 years in prison and four are over the age of 65 and serving life terms.

The group’s membership includes former governor Bob Holden, former state legislators, law professors, attorneys, law students, community leaders and advocates, as well as the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Professor John Ammann supervises the legal clinic at St. Louis University’s law school. He says the Coalition believes these women pose no threat to public safety if released.

“None of them had convictions or criminal records for violent offences before going into prison on these offenses,” says Ammann. “The second thing is, we think the state of Missouri has done a fairly good job on rehabilitation. All of our women have been through dozens of programs and classes.”

He says one example of a case in which a man received a much lighter sentence for a crime similar to those of several of these women developed late last year.

“A guy from Imperial, Missouri … his attorney was a former judge and a former prosecutor, got him a great deal, so he kills his estranged wife and he gets 16 years in prison,” says Ammann. “Any of our women would say, ‘Give me that deal.’ Any of our women would say, ’16 years? I probably deserve that but I don’t deserve 35 or 40 or the rest of my life.”

Amy Lorenz-Moser, a partner with Armstrong-Teasdale in St. Louis and an MCADSV board member.  (photo courtesy; Emily Truscott, MCADSV)

Amy Lorenz-Moser, a partner with Armstrong-Teasdale in St. Louis and an MCADSV board member. (photo courtesy; Emily Truscott, MCADSV)

Amy Lorenz-Moser represents one of the women, Donna Biernacki, who admitted to shooting her husband in the head in 2004 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder. A psychologist testified during her trial that she was suffering the effects of spousal abuse during her 12-year marriage.

Lorenz-Moser says her client and her 13 fellows have compelling stories about experiencing domestic violence and how it impacted their lives and their cases.

“My lady, specifically, killed her abuser in an act of self-defense,” says Lorenz-Moser.

The Coalition believes if these women were facing sentencing today for the same crimes, they would likely receive much lighter sentences.

“There are a lot of women in the group that were sentenced at a time when life sentences were sort of being handed out pretty frequently,” says Lorenz-Moser. “Today they’re handed out more judiciously.”

Ammann notes that Missouri statute has changed from a life sentence being 50 years, when many of these women were sentenced, to being 30 years now.

Donna Biernacki is pictured with her four daughters.  She has been in prison since 2004 for the murder of her husband.  The Coalition says portions of the jury instructions regarding battered spouse syndrome were not introduced at her trial, leaving the jury unaware it could use evidence of abuse to find her not guilty.  (photo courtesy; the Community Coalition for Clemency)

Donna Biernacki is pictured with her four daughters. She has been in prison since 2004 for the murder of her husband. The Coalition says portions of the jury instructions regarding battered spouse syndrome were not introduced at her trial, leaving the jury unaware it could use evidence of abuse to find her not guilty. (photo courtesy; the Community Coalition for Clemency)

“You know I think judges and prosecutors are just more enlightened these days about domestic violence and it’s factored in,” says Ammann. “Some of our women, I think, would have gotten probation if they were convicted today,” says Ammann.

Some of these women have had clemency requests awaiting action for years. Lorenz-Moser says the Coalition hopes it can spur action on those requests, and it is asking for people to sign its online petition requesting clemency for these 14 women.

“I think that the governor will respond to the community if they show that there is support for the release of these women,” says Lorenz-Moser. “I definitely think that there is hope for clemency.”

Nixon has granted clemency only once during his six years in office. In 2011 he commuted the sentence of Richard Clay from death to life in prison. Nixon has never officially stated his reason for the action.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste says the governor’s office does not comment on pending applications for clemency.

The 14 women are Biernacki, Amelia Bird, Amanda Busse, Rena Green, Tequila Harmon, Judy Henderson, Kim Hennessey, Margaret Hodges, Verdia Miller, Connie Pair, Vera Palmer, Mary Pickard, Patricia “Patty” Prewitt and Angel Stewart.

Lawyers, judges seek stay for Missouri inmate Christeson (AUDIO)

Mark Christenson

A national group that says it tries to reach consensus on difficult constitutional issues, and a number of former state and appellate judges warn that the execution of Mark Christeson tomorrow night would “cast a pall” over the judicial process. They claim Christeson has been denied his legal rights.

Mark Christeson was 18 when he and a 17-year-old cousin murdered a woman and her two children and threw their bodies into a pond near Vichy in 1998.   He is the only condemned Missouri prisoner whose case has not been reviewed at the federal level.

The judges and the Constitution Project are asking the Eighth District federal appeals court to stay the execution and to throw Christeson’s attorneys off the case.

Constitution Project counsel Sarah Turberville says Christeson’s lawyers missed the deadline by 117 days for filing a federal appeal and that’s why they should no longer represent him. She says it’s a conflict of interest for his attorneys to represent him because they have “blown any attempt he would have at federal review.”

Turberville says the issue is not whether Christeson should be executed—an issue the lawyers, judges, and the Constitution Project does not address She says it’s about whether he is being denied his constitutional rights of federal review of his death sentence.

Christeson is to be executed just after midnight tomorrow night.

Read the Christeson case file.

AUDIO: Turberville interview 14:26

 

 

 

ACLU troubled by St. Louis plan for citywide surveillance

The St. Louis Police Department’s proposal to set up an extensive city-wide surveillance system has been called “disturbing” by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Surveillance cameras (courtesy; Wikipedia commons)

Surveillance cameras (courtesy; Wikipedia commons)

The ACLU’s 36-page study of a plan to link government surveillance cameras with private business cameras with no limits on how long information is kept is called “troubling.” Missouri Executive Director Jeffrey Mittman says similar scenarios are likely happening in other cities.

What would set St. Louis apart is the possible formation of a Real Time Intelligence Center. Mittman says different constitutional questions are involved. “If the intention…is to increase the storage capability so that data can be kept for longer periods of time, that’s a yellow, orange, and in some cases red flag,” he says. “If an intention..is to include private business camera which do not have the same protections that governmental cameras have…again, very large red flag.”

Mittman says having a camera or two on intersection poles is different from having a network of cameras throughout a city that can monitor citizens 24 hours a day. He praises the city for contacting the ACLU and for trying to put some policies in place.  But he says the situation might require state legislation.

AUDIO: Mittman interview 18:03

Schweich to test for fat budgets and speeders (AUDIO)

Don’t say state auditor Tom Schweich is going to audit ten Missouri speed traps.   He’s going to make sure ten municipal courts are follow a state law that limits the use of speeding tickets to pay city bills.

The notorious Lake Ozark-area speed trap of Mack’s Creek so incensed state lawmakers that they passed a law almost twenty years ago limiting the percent of a community’s budget that could be financed with traffic tickets. The law has been tightened since then and an even lower limit has been set.

Schweich is sending staff members to check the records of ten municipal courts to see if they’re ignoring the law.   He says one person who contacted him told of being stopped in a town where the speed limit sign was obscured suggested the sign be put in a more visible position. The complaining motorist told Schweich the officer responded, “If we did that, I’d be out of a job.”

The list is based on hotline complaints and studies that indicate a per-capita ticket rate greater that a community’s population might warrant. Most of the communities are small ones where Schweich says the pressure might be greatest to raise money to finance basic community service. The courts to be audited are: Mosby, Leadington, Linn Creek, Foristell, Winfield, Foley, Ferguson, St. Ann, Bella Vista, and Pine Lawn.

If more than thirty percent of a city’s budget comes from traffic violations, the city must refund the overage to the state. If it doesn’t, the state can end the municipal court’s authority to handle those tickets.  Schweich calls that a strong incentive to follow the law.

AUDIO: (Schweich interview 8:46