Missouri Officials Likely Intimidated Prison Employee Who Sought To Halt Execution, Federal Judge Finds

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"Missouri Officials Likely Intimidated Prison Employee Who Sought To Halt Execution, Federal Judge Finds"

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CREDIT: (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Last month, a prison employee who spent many years working with death row inmate John Winfield sought to argue against his execution, telling Winfield’s attorney that he was “not the same person who committed the crime that sent him to death row” and does not deserve to die. But a day after employee Terry Cole consulted his supervisors about his interest in submitting a clemency support letter, he was placed under an investigation that threatened his job and prevented him from speaking out in support of Winfield.

On Thursday morning, a federal judge held that Missouri officials’ conduct likely amounted to intimidation that scared Cole out of helping to save Winfield’s life, and temporarily halted Winfield’s execution.

“[T]here is substantial evidence that Cole was, in fact, deterred from supporting the request for clemency,” U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry concluded. She added that “it is likely a fact-finder would not believe” Missouri officials’ argument that the timing of the investigation against Cole was a coincidence.

Cole was first approached by Winfield’s lawyer on the weekend of May 17, when Jessica Sutton visited his home. Winfield worked in the prison’s laundry for years, while Cole was the laundry director. Cole told Sutton that Winfield was in the “elite one percent of all inmates” and “shows his remorse for his crime in his every day actions and the life that he chooses to live.” Cole said Winfield took a special interest in younger, weaker inmates as well as those with disabilities, and would make positive contributions to the lives of many others if permitted to live.

The Monday after his conversation with Sutton, Cole went to his supervisors and asked about the policy for submitting clemency support letters. The state clemency power gives Gov. Jay Nixon (D) the power to stop a death sentence even if the courts permit it to go forward.

Cole’s supervisors told him that corrections department policy permitted him to file a letter so long as he didn’t claim to represent the views of the department. But a day after Cole’s conversation with the prison staff, the department undertook an investigation against him for “over-familiarity” with Winfield. A negative finding against Cole could have threatened his job. But even without any such findings, Cole was prohibited during the course of the investigation from participating in any activities related to the investigation — including submitting a letter in support of Winfield.

Cole denied that he was directly intimidated or threatened, but told Winfield’s lawyers that he could no longer write a letter of support so long as an investigation was pending. Even after the investigation was dropped, no one notified Cole.

Judge Perry issued a temporary injunction Thursday blocking Missouri officials from any further attempts to discourage statements in favor of Winfield’s clemency, finding that Winfield was likely to succeed in his case arguing that the state interfered with his constitutional due process rights by impeding the clemency process. Perry also stayed Winfield’s execution, scheduled for June 18, while the case continues.

The alleged intimidation is one of a number of controversies surrounding Missouri’s death penalty. Missouri is also one of several states that refuses to disclose the source of drugs used in lethal injections, even after Oklahoma botched an execution using secret drugs.

And a juror who voted to send Winfield to death row is arguing that court officials pressured her to keep deliberating when she and another juror wanted to vote against the death penalty for Winfield. Turner is also supporting Winfield’s petition for clemency, along with Winfield’s daughter, whose mother was blinded in the shooting that led to Winfield’s death sentence.

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