On October 18, 1985, Gary “Fox” Barber was stabbed to death with an ice pick in the recreation room at the Potosi Correctional Center in Cole County, Missouri. There were about 50 inmates and two correctional officers in the room, and many different accounts of what happened.
Initially, inmate Terry Russell was the prime suspect. Eyewitness Officer John Noble reported seeing Russell and Barber engage in “horseplay,” and Barber chasing Russell before he collapsed. Russell and Barber had been in a fight a week earlier, although Noble did not know this. When Russell was brought in for questioning, he said inmate Joseph Amrine had admitted to him that he committed the murder. Russell claimed Amrine wanted revenge for a rumor – started by Russell – that Barber had taken advantage of him sexually. Russell said he did not see the murder, because he had left the room to get aspirin for a headache, but returned when officers were loading Barber onto a stretcher – however, the room was sealed. In exchange for his testimony, Russell received protective custody and a commendation to the parole board.
Amrine denied any involvement in the murder. He claimed to be playing poker at the time – a claim substantiated by six other inmates - but investigators continued to build a case against Amrine, convincing two other inmates to accuse him of the murder in exchange for protective custody and reduced criminal charges. One of the inmates was questioned as many as 30 times by the lead investigator in order to be able to tell the right story.
Amrine’s public defender met with Amrine and other witnesses for a total of 45 minutes in preparation for trial. He failed to interview two witnesses, both of whom claimed in post-conviction hearings to have been playing cards with Amrine at the time of the murder, and one of whom claimed to have seen Russell stab Barber. He did not point out major inconsistencies in the testimony against Amrine, or reveal that Russell had also been a suspect in the crime. He failed to emphasize the testimony of Officer Noble, whose account of what happened conflicted with Russell’s, and who was the only non-inmate to witness the crime, and the only one with nothing to gain from his testimony. Finally, he allowed dried blood found on Amrine’s shirt to be admitted as evidence against him, despite the fact that a state serologist had said he could not determine the age or type of the blood, because it was not fresh. Amrine, who is African-American, was convicted of first-degree murder by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death.
At a 1987 post-conviction hearing, Russell and another witness admitted to lying on the stand. With these two recantations in hand, Amrine filed a habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Missouri. Judge Fernando Gaitan, Jr. refused to consider the witness recantations, in part because the third eyewitness had not recanted. When the third witness did recant, the United States Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit remanded the case to Judge Gaitan, who held that the only “new” evidence was the third and most recent recantation, which he deemed unreliable. He did not reconsider Amrine’s guilt or innocence.
In November 2001, the Missouri Attorney General asked the Missouri Supreme Court to set an execution date for Amrine. The justices, however, delayed setting a date and--perhaps prompted by a documentary that had been made about Amrine’s case and the resulting public attention—conducted an extraordinary hearing to consider his innocence.
On April 29, 2003, in a 4-3 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court said Amrine had presented "clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence that undermines confidence" in his conviction. The Court ordered the state to release Amrine or give him a new trial. On July 28 of that year, the Cole County prosecutor announced that he would not seek a new trial, and Amrine was released.
Amrine filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages for his incarceration, but the lawsuit was dismissed in 2009.
– Alexandra Gross