Missouri Officials Intimidated Prison Employee Who Sought To Halt Inmate’s Death Sentence, Lawsuit Alleges


A Missouri inmate is scheduled to die June 18 for the murder of two women. One unidentified staff member who has worked with John Winfield in the years since his conviction has said he has “not the same person who committed the crime that sent him to death row” and does not deserve to die. In conversations with Winfield’s lawyers, he said Winfield is in the “elite one percent of all inmates” who “shows his remorse for his crime in his every day actions and the life that he chooses to live” and will make positive contributions to the lives of many others if permitted to live.

But on the day after this staff member told his supervisors he planned to write a letter in support of Winfield, he became the subject of an investigation by the prison that threatened his employment status and caused him to revoke his statements, according to legal filings by Winfield’s lawyers.

The staff member, whose name is being withheld because of threats against him, was told he was being investigated for “overfamiliarity” with Winfield. The staff member has been a state Department of Corrections employee for more than 20 years, and worked with Winfield for several years while he was employed at Potosi Correctional Center. The staff member stated that he was a strong supporter of execution at the beginning of his career, but has, over time, “met a few exceptional individuals who have been sentenced to death, but who have become changed men.” He considers Winfield one of those men, pointing to both Winfield’s exceptional work ethic, and numerous examples of Winfield’s “dedicat[ion] to helping those who are in pain.”

“Mr. Winfield ‘wants to be there for his family’ and cries ‘when he can’t do anything to help those he loves on the outside’,” according to Winfield’s court filing. “While Mr. Winfield struggled to provide for his loved ones at home, he also cared for younger and weaker inmates at the prison. He took a special interest in looking after the inmates in the Special needs Unit, who have disabilities, going so far as to press their clothes so that they can take pride in themselves. Other times, the staff member sees Mr. Winfield bestow small kindnesses, such as going to the canteen and bringing back two ice creams, then giving both of them away. The staff member emphasized that Mr. Winfield ‘is genuinely concerned about the well-being of others.’”

After the staff member met with inmate John Winfield’s lawyer, he consulted his supervisors to ask if he would be permitted to write a letter supporting Winfield’s application for clemency. 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. His supervisors told him there was no policy against writing such letters, as long as he did not purport to represent the Department of Corrections. But the following day, an investigator told the staff member that he was a “suspect” in a case considering his “overfamiliarity” with Winfield, according to the court filing.

Local corrections officials referred ThinkProgress to the state Department of Corrections, who did not return a call for comment by press time.

This investigation has several implications. It not only means that the staff member could now face negative employment repercussions. It also effectively blocks him from writing the letter in support of clemency, because employees are prohibited from participating in activities related to the investigation while it is ongoing.

Winfield’s lawyer had planned to include a declaration signed by the staff member in his application for clemency. But after the investigation began, the staff member wrote an apologetic email to Winfield’s lawyer, stating that he could not sign any affidavit so long as the investigation was ongoing.

Winfield’s lawyers cite another 2008 incident in which a judge found that the same correctional center interfered in another clemency application, and granted a stay of the execution as a consequence. Gov. Jay Nixon later denied clemency despite the support of several prison staff members, and Dennis Skillicorn was executed in 2009.

This most recent battle comes as Missouri continues to keep secret the source of the state’s lethal injection drugs. Even after a botched Oklahoma execution drew increased attention to the practice of putting inmates to death using secret, unverified drugs, other states have continued to move forward with executions.