Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Missouri Supreme Court Allows Actual Innocence Claims in Death Penalty Habeas

By Matthew T. Clarke

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Missouri (SCM) has held
that a death-sentenced prisoner may raise a freestanding claim of actual
innocence in a state habeas petition.

Joseph Amrine, formerly a Missouri state prisoner, was convicted of
murdering Gary Barber, another prisoner who was stabbed to death in a
Jefferson City Correctional Center dayroom in 1985. At his trial, guard
John Noble identified prisoner Terry Russell as the murderer. Russell and
two other prisoners, Randy Ferguson and Jerry Poe, testified that Amrine
had committed the murder. Six other prisoners testified that Amrine was
playing cards on the other side of the dayroom when the stabbing occurred.
Amrine was convicted and sentenced to death, which was affirmed on direct

Amrine filed for state post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective
assistance of counsel. During a hearing Ferguson and Russell recanted.
Relief was denied after the court refused to consider the credibility of
the recantations. A subsequent federal habeas petition was denied because
Poe's testimony still stood. Amrine appealed.

Sean O'Brien of the University of Missouri Law School then became involved.
O'Brien, a team of death penalty appeals experts, law student activists and
the editorial staff of the St. Louis Post Dispatch became stalwart
supporters of Amrine. O'Brien located Poe, who recanted in an affidavit.
The Eighth Circuit then returned the case to the district court for a
determination of whether Poe's evidence was new and reliable and justified
granting relief.

On remand, Amrine presented live testimony from former prisoners Russell
and Dean and former guard Noble, as well as videotaped testimony from Poe
and Ferguson, all of whom said Amrine did not kill Barber. The district
court denied relief, saying only that Poe's evidence was new but was
unreliable. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to
hear the case.

Amrine filed another state petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the
SCM, claiming that no court had addressed all of the exculpatory and
recantation evidence, that said evidence proved he was actually innocent of
the murder, and that it would be a manifest injustice and a violation of
the constitution to execute an innocent prisoner. In a matter of first
impression, the SCM held that a free-standing claim of actual innocence may
be raised in a death penalty habeas corpus action.

Normally, a colorable claim of actual innocence may be used by a habeas
petitioner to excuse procedural default on another constitutional issue. In
this case, the actual innocence claim was not a gatekeeper to allow the
consideration of other claims, but was rather a freestanding constitutional
claim of its own. Although it was assumed that the trial was
constitutionally adequate, the conviction was not entitled to the nearly
irrebuttable presumption of validity afforded to a conviction being
challenged for insufficiency of the evidence. The habeas petitioner must
establish actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence that undermines
confidence in the judgment. In such rare circumstances the conviction will
be reversed, but without a double jeopardy bar to retrial. Therefore, the
SCM reversed the conviction, ordering the state to release Amrine in 30
days if it had not re-filed the murder charges by that time.

On June 13, 2003, a prosecutor filed new charges against Amrine based on
possible blood stains on Amrine's clothing. On July 28, 2003, when DNA
testing of the stains proved inconclusive, the charges were dropped and
Amrine was released. See: State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, 102 S.W.3d 541
(Mo. 2003).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc.

STATE ex rel. Joseph AMRINE, Petitioner,


Donald P. ROPER, Superintendent, Potosi Correctional Center, Respondent.

No. SC 84656.
April 29, 2003.

Following the affirmance of his conviction for first-degree murder and his death sentence, 741 S.W.2d 665, the affirmance of the denial of postconviction relief, 785 S.W.2d 531, and the affirmance of the denial of federal habeas corpus relief, 238 F.3d 1023, petitioner sought state habeas corpus relief. On original jurisdiction, the Supreme Court, Richard B. Teitelman, J., held that: (1) as a matter of first impression, a writ of habeas corpus is an appropriate means for a defendant sentenced to death to assert a freestanding claim of actual innocence, independent of any constitutional violation at trial, and (2) clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence undermined Supreme Court's confidence in petitioner's conviction and sentence.
Petition granted.
Michael A. Wolff, J., filed a concurring opinion.
Duane Benton, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Limbaugh, C.J., concurred.
William Ray Price, Jr., J., filed a dissenting opinion.
This case presents the issue of whether a Missouri prisoner sentenced to death can obtain habeas relief on a claim of actual innocence alone, independent of any constitutional violation at trial. [FN1] Because the continued imprisonment and eventual execution of an innocent person is a manifest injustice, a habeas petitioner under a sentence of death may obtain relief from a judgment of conviction and sentence of death upon a clear and convincing showing of actual innocence that undermines confidence in the correctness of the judgment. *544 The newly discovered evidence presented by Amrine meets this standard.
FN1. This Court has original jurisdiction because Amrine was sentenced to death. Rule 91.02(b).

While the dissenting opinion suggests that questions of credibility remain, the Court disagrees. In light of the resulting lack of any remaining direct evidence of Amrine's guilt from the first trial, Amrine has already met the clear and convincing evidence standard, for our confidence in the outcome of the first trial is sufficiently undermined by the recantation of all the key witnesses against him in the first trial to require setting aside his conviction and sentence of death. There would be no purpose to a preliminary determination of credibility by this Court sitting as a habeas court, either directly or through a master.
For these reasons, Amrine is entitled to relief from his conviction and sentence and to release subject to the prosecutor's decision whether to pursue new charges against Amrine if the state believes it has sufficient evidence to do so. This Court therefore orders Amrine conditionally discharged from Respondent's custody thirty days from the date the mandate issues in this case unless the state elects to file new charges against Amrine in relation to the murder of which he was convicted.
On October 18, 1985, inmate Gary Barber was stabbed to death in a recreation room at the Jefferson City Correctional Center. Officer John Noble identified inmate Terry Russell as the perpetrator. While being questioned about Barber's murder, Russell claimed that Amrine admitted that he had stabbed Barber. Amrine was charged with Barber's murder.
The state's case against Amrine rested on the testimony of inmate witnesses Terry Russell, Randy Ferguson and Jerry Poe. Russell testified that Amrine admitted to the murder. Ferguson testified that Amrine was walking next to Barber for several minutes before pulling a knife out of his waistband and stabbing Barber. Poe was not asked to describe the murder and testified only that he witnessed Amrine stab Barber. There was no physical evidence linking Amrine to the murder.
Amrine introduced evidence showing that he was not the killer and that Terry Russell was. Officer Noble testified that he saw Barber chase Russell across the recreation room before Barber pulled the knife from his back, collapsed, and died. Six inmates testified that Amrine was playing poker in a different part of the room at the time of the stabbing. Three of those inmates identified Terry Russell as the person that Barber was chasing. None of them named Amrine. The jury found Amrine guilty of Barber's murder, and he was sentenced to death.
This Court affirmed Amrine's conviction and sentence on direct appeal. State v. Amrine, 741 S.W.2d 665 (Mo. banc 1987). Amrine filed for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel under Rule 29.15. Ferguson and Russell testified at the Rule 29.15 hearing and recanted their trial testimony identifying Amrine as the murderer. Poe did not appear or testify in any of the state post-conviction proceedings, leaving his trial testimony intact. The motion court denied Amrine's petition for relief. This Court affirmed the judgment without reviewing the recantations. Amrine v. State, 785 S.W.2d 531 (Mo. banc 1990).
Amrine then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri. Although counsel argued that Amrine was actually innocent given the recantations of Russell and Ferguson, counsel introduced no new evidence of innocence. Because of the continued existence of Poe's testimony, the district court *545 did not consider matters pertaining to the credibility of Russell and Ferguson and denied Amrine's petition.
Amrine obtained new counsel who located Jerry Poe. Poe offered an affidavit in which he recanted completely his trial testimony, stating that he did not see Amrine stab Barber and that he falsely implicated Amrine. Poe's affidavit, if believed, would contradict the key evidence against Amrine. In light of this new evidence, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a limited remand for the district court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine if Poe's evidence Amrine presented was new and reliable and warranted habeas relief under Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 115 S.Ct. 851, 130 L.Ed.2d 808 (1995). [FN2] Amrine v. Bowersox, 128 F.3d 1222, 1228 (8th Cir.1997).
FN2. Under Schlup, a petitioner may obtain federal habeas review of defaulted constitutional claims if new evidence establishes that it is
more likely than not that no reasonable juror would convict in light of the new evidence.

On remand, Amrine presented testimony from former inmates Russell and Dean, former corrections officer Noble, and videotaped testimony from Poe and Ferguson. The district court denied Amrine's claim on the basis that only Poe's testimony was "new evidence" and that his recantation was unreliable. The district court did not consider Amrine's other evidence, including the recantations of Russell and Ferguson, because that evidence was not new. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment, holding that the district court properly focused on Poe's testimony because the testimony from Russell, Ferguson, Dean and Noble was not new. Amrine v. Bowersox, 238 F.3d 1023 (8th Cir.2001). The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. Amrine v. Luebbers, 534 U.S. 963, 122 S.Ct. 372, 151 L.Ed.2d 283 (2001).
Amrine petitions this Court for a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that he is actually innocent of the Barber murder. Because the recantations were made over the course of years and between rounds of federal court proceedings, no court has addressed, at once, all of the evidence of Amrine's innocence. This Court is the first forum in which all of the existing evidence of innocence will be considered.
Amrine contends that he is entitled to habeas relief because all of the evidence now available establishes that he is actually innocent of the Barber murder. Amrine's claim for habeas relief rests on the proposition that his continued incarceration and eventual execution for a murder he did not commit constitutes a manifest injustice entitling him to habeas relief even though his trial and sentencing were otherwise constitutionally adequate. This case thus presents the first impression issue of whether and upon what showing a petitioner who makes a freestanding claim of actual innocence is entitled to habeas corpus relief from his conviction and sentence.
I. Habeas Review of Claims of Constitutional Error

Habeas corpus is the last judicial inquiry into the validity of a criminal conviction and serves as "a bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness." Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 126, 102 S.Ct. 1558, 71 L.Ed.2d 783 (1982). To that end, Missouri law provides that a writ of habeas corpus may be issued when a person is restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the constitution or laws of the state or federal government. *546 State ex rel. Nixon v. Jaynes, 63 S.W.3d 210, 214 (Mo. banc 2001). Even though the interests protected by the writ are fundamental, relief is limited in order to avoid unending challenges to final judgments. Habeas relief, therefore, is generally denied if the petitioner raises procedurally barred claims that could have been raised at an earlier stage or if other adequate remedies are available. Clay v. Dormire, 37 S.W.3d 214, 217 (Mo. banc 2000). Exceptions to this rule are recognized when the petitioner raises a jurisdictional issue, can demonstrate "cause and prejudice," or in extraordinary circumstances, when the petitioner can demonstrate that a "manifest injustice" would result unless habeas relief is granted. State ex rel. Nixon v. Jaynes, 63 S.W.3d at 215; State ex rel. Simmons v. White, 866 S.W.2d 443, 446 (Mo. banc 1993).
Amrine's petition for habeas relief turns on the application of the manifest injustice standard to his claim of actual innocence. The state argues that Amrine's right to habeas relief depends on whether he meets the standards discussed in Clay for habeas relief. Clay discussed the circumstances in which a prisoner who has failed to raise a claim of constitutional error within the time period allowed under Missouri law may nonetheless obtain review of that claim of constitutional error. Clay adopted the federal standard set out in Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. at 327, 115 S.Ct. 851, and required a showing of either (1) cause for failing to raise the claim in a timely manner and prejudice from the constitutional error asserted, or (2) a showing by the preponderance of the evidence of actual innocence, and this would meet the manifest injustice standard for habeas relief under Missouri law. A showing either of cause and prejudice or of actual innocence acts as a "gateway" that entitles the prisoner to review on the merits of the prisoner's otherwise defaulted constitutional claim. Clay, 37 S.W.3d at 217.
II. Freestanding Claims of Actual Innocence As Manifest Injustice
Here, however, Mr. Amrine does not assert actual innocence merely as a gateway to allow consideration of an underlying constitutional claim. Rather, he makes what has been termed a "freestanding" claim of actual innocence.
In Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 113 S.Ct. 853, 122 L.Ed.2d 203 (1993), the United States Supreme Court discussed the viability of a freestanding claim of actual innocence as a basis for habeas relief in the federal courts. Although the Court determined that federalism concerns militated against recognizing actual innocence as a basis for federal habeas relief, the Court assumed for the sake of argument that:
in a capital case a truly persuasive demonstration of actual innocence made after trial would render the execution of a defendant unconstitutional and warrant federal habeas relief if there were no state avenue open to process such a claim.
Id. at 417, 113 S.Ct. 853. [FN3] In other words, as Herrera recognized, even if a federal *547 court were found not to have jurisdiction to review a state conviction and sentence in the absence of a federal constitutional issue, this would not deprive a state court from reviewing the conviction and sentence if its own state habeas law so permitted. The issue now before this Court, then, is whether, in the words of Herrera, Missouri has left a "state avenue open to process such a claim." Id. This Court finds that it has done so.
FN3. In separate opinions, six members of the Court suggested that there may be circumstances in which it would be constitutionally intolerable under the federal constitution. Specifically, Justice O'Connor, joined by Justice Kennedy, stated that "the execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event," Id. at 420, 113 S.Ct. 853, although she then concluded that the existence of federal relief for such a person need not be addressed in the case before the court. Justice White stated that "a persuasive showing of actual innocence made after trial ... would render unconstitutional the execution of the petitioner in this case." Id. at 429, 113 S.Ct. 853, but also failed to finally decide the issue on the record before the Court. By contrast, Justice Blackmun, joined in his dissent by Justices Souter and Stevens, stated that executing an innocent person is the "ultimate arbitrary imposition" and unquestionably violates both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 437, 113 S.Ct. 853.

Article I, section 10 of the Missouri constitution similarly provides that "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." The constitutional guarantee of due process protects the
individual from the arbitrary exercise of governmental power. Even were there no federal constitutional violation in the execution of an innocent person, this Court could find as a matter of state law that, as the purpose of the criminal justice system is to convict the guilty and free the innocent, it is completely arbitrary to continue to incarcerate and eventually execute an individual who is actually innocent. Because of our finding that such an execution would constitute a manifest injustice in this case, however, this Court, too, avoids finally resolving this issue today.

Having recognized the prospect of an intolerable wrong, the state has provided a remedy. As noted, it is not the remedy set out in Clay, for, while the Clay standard is appropriate for cases involving procedurally defaulted constitutional claims, it fails to account for those rare situations, such as Amrine's, in which a petitioner sets forth a compelling case of actual innocence independent of any constitutional violation at trial. This is all the more true here, where the execution of a potentially innocent man is at stake, for the death penalty is fundamentally different from other cases in which innocence is asserted after a fair trial. For this reason, uniquely under Missouri's death penalty statute, section 565.035.3, this Court is charged with determining not merely the sufficiency but also the "strength of the evidence." See State v. Chaney, 967 S.W.2d 47 (Mo. banc 1998). The obvious purpose is to avoid wrongful convictions and executions. The duty to do so in death penalty cases is, just as obviously, a continuing one. It is difficult to imagine a more manifestly unjust and unconstitutional result than permitting the execution of an innocent person. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the courts of this state to provide judicial recourse to an individual who, after the time for appeals has passed, is able to produce sufficient evidence of innocence to undermine the habeas court's confidence in the underlying judgment that resulted in defendant's conviction and sentence of death. The writ of habeas corpus is the appropriate means for Amrine to assert this claim. [FN4]
FN4. Other states have reached a similar conclusion and presently allow habeas relief on a freestanding claim of actual innocence. State v. Washington, 171 Ill.2d 475, 216 Ill.Dec. 773, 665 N.E.2d 1330, 1337 (1996); State ex rel. Holmes v. Court of Appeals, 885 S.W.2d 389, 397 (Tex.Crim.App.1994); Summerville v. Warden, State Prison, 229 Conn. 397, 641 A.2d 1356, 1369 (1994); In re Lindley, 29 Cal.2d 709, 177 P.2d 918 (1947).