Friday, 15 May 2009

UPDATE: Missouri GOP leader urges commutation of death sentence

By CHRIS BLANK/The Associated Press
May 13, 2009 | 5:32 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — House Majority Leader Steven Tilley said Wednesday that Gov. Jay Nixon should commute the death sentence of a Missouri man who is scheduled to be executed May 20.

Tilley, one of the chamber's top Republican leaders, urged the Democratic governor to change Dennis Skillicorn's sentence to life in prison.

Tilley's comments came as the House debated — and ultimately defeated — a measure that would have placed a moratorium on executions until 2012.

Skillicorn was one of three men convicted of killing Excelsior Springs businessman Richard Drummond in 1994, after Drummond stopped along Interstate 70 to help when their car stalled. The man who pulled the trigger, Allen Nicklasson, also has been sentenced to death and has said that Skillicorn didn't kill Drummond.

"That's enough reasonable doubt for me, that I would be very, very concerned if this state executed that individual," said Tilley, who also cited Skillicorn's behavior while incarcerated and called the convicted murderer "a model citizen" who has helped make the prison safer.

Skillicorn has assisted with terminally ill prisoners, a family strengthening program for inmates and their children, a national Death Row newsletter and efforts to set juvenile offenders straight.

A spokesman for Nixon said the governor's office would "give a full and fair review of any clemency petition that would be submitted by Mr. Skillicorn."

Rep. Bob Nance, who represents Drummond's hometown, said executing Skillicorn is fair.

"He has gotten what he deserved," said Nance, R-Excelsior Springs.

Missouri's last execution occurred in October 2005. A federal judge in 2006 halted all executions, declaring the state's lethal injection process unconstitutional after the surgeon who previously oversaw the executions testified he was dyslexic, sometimes transposed numbers and operated without written procedures or supervision.

Federal courts have since approved Missouri's revised execution protocols, clearing the way for executions to resume. A federal judge and the Missouri Supreme Court have denied efforts to delay Skillicorn's scheduled execution.

The often rancorous House was nearly silent during debate Wednesday over the proposed death penalty moratorium as observers — including schoolchildren touring the Capitol — watched from the upper galleries. Several House members shared personal stories about family members who had been killed.

The House eventually voted 95-64 to scrap the death penalty moratorium but keep a formal study of Missouri's execution system. A 10-member commission would study death penalty cases, review possible alternative punishments and suggest possible law changes to ensure those sentenced to death are guilty and received adequate legal counsel.

The death penalty provisions were added to broader crime legislation that would have to be reconciled with senators by the end of the legislative session at 6 p.m. Friday.

Some Republican and Democratic House members said the death penalty study was needed to preserve the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Rep. James Morris, D-St. Louis, told lawmakers he had urged a judge not impose the death penalty against someone who killed his nephew.

Arguing against the moratorium were two Republican lawmakers whose relative was one of four people killed in a mid-Missouri sniper rampage in 1991.

James R. Johnson was executed in 2002 for the killing of Leslie Roark, Moniteau County Reserve Deputy; Charles Smith, Cooper County Sheriff; Sandra Wilson, Miller County Deputy; and Pam Jones, wife of Moniteau County Sheriff Kenny Jones.

Kenny Jones now is a Republican lawmaker from California, Mo., and is the uncle of Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, who choked back tears as he explained reading about the death of his aunt in USA Today. Kenny Jones left the chamber during parts of his nephew's floor speech.

Calling a vote for the death penalty moratorium an effort to be soft on crime, Kenny Jones urged lawmakers to remember crime victims.

"I think we have to realize that we speak for those who can't. We speak for those who have been murdered," he said.

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