Thursday, 25 June 2009

Dennis Skillicorn's widow reacts to the halting of Missouri executions

By Nadia Pflaum in Follow That Story
Thursday, Jun. 25 2009 @ 6:30AM

Just a little over a month after the state ended the life of Dennis Skillicorn by lethal injection, executions are again on hold in Missouri. Incoming Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice William Ray Price Jr. told the The Associated Press yesterday that he didn't expect the Court to schedule any executions while the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals weighs an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Reginald Clemons that questions the constitutionality of Missouri's lethal injection protocol.

The stall is temporary relief for Clemons, who was next up to be executed. But the news is bittersweet for Paula Skillicorn, Dennis' widow. "While this is good news for death row families who will be spared -- at least for a while -- the deep pain and horror that our whole family is suffering, the way the Supreme Court handled this shows once again how capricious and inconsistent the system is when it comes to the death penalty," Paula wrote to The Pitch via e-mail.

The Eighth Circuit, without explanation, granted a stay of execution for Clemons on June 5. Attorneys for Clemons, who was sentenced to death as an accomplice in the 1991 murders of two sisters in St. Louis, argue that Missouri's procedures for lethal injection are insufficient.

Missouri's recent history of lethal injections is messy. In 2006, Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. halted executions in the state after Dr. Alan Doerhoff testified that his dyslexia may have caused him to mix up the dosages of the lethal chemicals he administered to dozens of condemned inmates, potentially causing excruciating pain.

To correct future errors, the Missouri Department of Corrections came up with a new lethal injection protocol, but many objectors, including Doerhoff, considered it insufficient. Clemons' attorneys filed an appeal claiming as much, then filed for a stay of execution for Clemons because the 8th Circuit had yet to rule on the pending appeal.

The sad irony for Jennifer Merrigan, Skillicorn's attorney, is that she'd asked the Missouri Supreme Court to halt her client's execution based on the exact same issue: That because Clemons' appeal was still pending in the 8th Circuit, and its outcome would affect all prisoners awaiting execution on death row, no executions should be scheduled until Clemons' appeal is decided.

"The State itself had maintained (in regard to Clemons' appeal) that prisoners who were not plaintiffs to the suit need not intervene in the suit in order to benefit from a positive ruling, because legally a good result for any of the prisoners would benefit all death row prisoners," Merrigan wrote in an e-mail to The Pitch. "In Dennis' case, however, the State turned around and argued the opposite, that Dennis had no right to benefit from the Clemons litigation."

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