Is innocence enough to overturn a conviction?

By Scott Lauck
BridgeTower Media Newswires
ST. LOUIS, MO — The Missouri Supreme Court soon could decide a seemingly obvious question that remains unclear under Missouri law — if innocence is enough to overturn a wrongful conviction after all appeals have been spent.

On Feb. 2, Judge Darrell E. Missey issued a special master’s report recommending that David Robinson be exonerated of the 2000 murder of Sheila Box in Sikeston. Missey, a Jefferson County circuit judge whom the Supreme Court specially appointed to the case last year, found “clear and convincing evidence” that Robinson is innocent.

If Robinson had been sentenced to death for the crime, his legal path would be clear. In a landmark 2003 case, State ex rel. Amrine v. Roper, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial for death-row inmate Joseph Amrine after witnesses recanted the testimony that had implicated him in a prison murder. Amrine was released after prosecutors declined to retry him.

Robinson, however, is serving life in prison without parole, and the Amrine precedent never has been applied in a non-capital case. In fact, a recent appeals court decision explicitly refused to make such an extension to an inmate serving a life sentence, saying the Supreme Court first needed to recognize such a claim.

Missey’s report urged the high court to do just that.

“There is no reasonable argument that an innocent petitioner's incarceration for life is not a ‘manifest injustice,’” Missey wrote. “Only the most tortured logic could yield the conclusion that David Robinson must continue to serve a life sentence but would have walked free if only he had been sentenced to death. There is no basis in law or reason for such a distinction to be made.”

Charlie Weiss, a partner at Bryan Cave who is serving as Robinson’s lawyer, said the 91-page report was among the “most meticulous, eloquent, compelling and powerful decisions” he’s ever read. Now he’s waiting to see if the Supreme Court will accept the recommendation, which may involve further briefing and arguments.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has until early March to ask Missey to make changes to the report before it becomes final.

“We are currently reviewing the report and working to determine our course of action,” Loree Anne Paradise, the office’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email.

Robinson’s conviction was based on an eyewitness who said he fatally shot Box in her car on Aug. 5, 2000. Investigators found no physical evidence of Robinson’s involvement in the crime. The two state eyewitnesses in the case later recanted, saying they’d testified against him to receive favorable treatment in their own legal troubles.

More importantly, another man, Romanze Mosby, confessed to at least five people that he shot Box, saying she pulled a gun on him during a drug deal. Mosby hanged himself in 2009 but left behind a taped confession. Missey found “no credible evidence to support the conviction of David Robinson.”

Under current Missouri law, however, all of that might not be enough to free Robinson from prison. In 2016, the Court of Appeals Western District said it could not review a man’s claim that he is innocent of murder because the Supreme Court has not recognized a so-called “freestanding claim of actual innocence” unless the death penalty is involved. The claim is considered “freestanding” because it doesn’t require a court to find that the defendant suffered some sort of constitutional violation at trial.

The appeals court pointed to language in the 2003 Amrine opinion that said the death penalty is “fundamentally different from other cases in which innocence is asserted after a fair trial.” It also noted a state statute that requires the Supreme Court to review the “strength of the evidence” when weighing death-penalty cases.

“In short, no matter how compelling [the inmate]’s argument may be, we are constrained to afford habeas relief only as authorized,” the court said in denying a habeas petition from Rodney Lincoln, who is serving two life sentences for the 1982 murder of Joanne Tate in St. Louis.

Tate’s daughter, who survived the attack, initially identified Lincoln as her mother’s killer but later recanted her testimony.

The Supreme Court declined to review Lincoln’s case following the Western District ruling. Missey’s report, however, urged the Supreme Court to revisit the issue, saying the appeals courts’ analysis in Lincoln’s case “misconstrues” the Supreme Court's precedent in Amrine.

“Though the Supreme Court repeatedly mentioned Joseph Amrine's death sentence and expressed the importance of getting death-penalty cases right, there is no language anywhere in the Amrine opinion which limits habeas corpus relief to people who have been sentenced to death,” Missey wrote. “Quite to the contrary, the Court in Amrine sets forth the general principle that clearly innocent people should be afforded relief, and then emphasizes the particular importance of preventing wrongful executions.”

Weiss, Robinson’s attorney, says he remains hopeful. He said Robinson’s case is “Amrine-plus” — not only did the witnesses recant, but the apparent actual murderer confessed. Weiss also noted that the Supreme Court itself has allowed Robinson’s claims to proceed so far, even though he obviously is not on death row.

“If the Supreme Court believed that Amrine was limited only to capital cases, they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble,” Weiss said.


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