Mercy in Missouri

April 30, 2009
Guest Post

By Christopher Hill, State Strategies Coordinator for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project

During the last general election there was much discussion about the power of the executive branch. One great power that the executive branches of the federal government and most states have is the power to grant clemency.

The ability to examine a person's life and decide to grant him or her mercy is awesome. This ability is even more incredible in the capital punishment context. It gives the executive the chance to save a life. In 2003, Gov. George Ryan (R-Ill.) commuted the death sentences of all 167 death-row inmates and pardoned four men. He did so because he believed that the state's capital punishment system could no longer be trusted given the numerous exonerations and the documented cases of law enforcement misconduct.

Clemency can make things right when the complicated and convoluted procedures of the judicial system prevent justice from being done because, for example, a death-row inmate has missed a deadline. It can also make things right when a death-row inmate has shown that he has reformed and deserves the mercy of a life sentence without parole.

Gov. Jay Nixon (D-Mo.) has that chance. Dennis Skillicorn is scheduled to be executed on May 20, 2009. Skillicorn (left) does not dispute that when he was younger he committed murders and was a thief. While he was addicted to drugs; he did horrific things. (Update, 5/1/09: Although he was convicted of an earlier murder and plead guilty to the Arizona murders, Skillicorn claims that he was not the triggerman in his first conviction and Nicklasson also confessed to being the triggerman in the Arizona murders.) 

Dennis Skillicorn is never going to be released from prison. In addition to his death sentence in Missouri, he has life sentences to serve in Arizona. Interviews he has given indicate he is remorseful for his crimes and that he understands that he has to be punished for his actions. The issue is whether he should die for them.

This is where clemency comes in and Dennis Skillicorn has many arguments for clemency.

First, Allen Nicklasson, Skillicorn's accomplice in a number of robberies, stated that Skillicorn did not take part in the murder for which he was sentenced to death. Nicklasson claims he was the shooter and Skillicorn did not know that he was going to kill anyone. This is not a recent revelation. Nicklasson has spent to last 15 years telling people that Skillicorn was not involved in the murder. Unfortunately, when the jury sentenced Skillicorn to death, they did so without hearing Nicklasson's testimony. The foreman of Skillicorn's jury stated that he would not have voted for death if he knew about Nicklasson's confession. This is a time where clemency can correct an injustice that the judicial process did not correct.

It defies logic to execute a person for a murder when he was not involved in that murder.

Second, and most important, Dennis Skillicorn is not the same person he was back in 1994. During his time in prison awaiting his capital trial, he kicked his drug habit. Soon after, he picked up a Bible and started to find peace. He also found purpose.

Skillicorn edits a newsletter that raises scholarship money for family members of murder victims. Thus far over $30,000 has been raised. Skillicorn has been described as a peace maker by prison guards.

Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-Ga.) granted clemency to Samuel David Crowe for the same reasons that Gov. Nixon can commute Skillicorn's death sentence. Crowe became a peacekeeper on Georgia's death row. A prison guard said that he was sure that Crowe would not be a danger to society if he were to be released. Crowe will never be released. He will end his life in prison. If clemency is granted, Skillicorn will also die in prison.

Skillicorn and two other condemned inmates have filed suit against Gov. Nixon claiming that since he was Attorney General when they were tried, he cannot fairly make a decision on their clemency petition. These men deserve to have their death sentences impartially examined before the ultimate sanction is carried out.

Clemency for Skillicorn does not mean that the victims of his crimes have been forgotten. Sparing his life is in no way intended to lessen their lives and tragic deaths. It is simply saying that more death is not the answer. Particularly when it is so apparent that Skillicorn has something to contribute to society. Dennis Skillicorn will not be released from responsibility for his crimes. He will still be punished. Skillicorn will be permanently incarcerated. Prison will serve both the retributive and rehabilitative purpose for which it is intended.

Gov. Nixon or whatever panel is charged with judging Skillicorn's clemency petition should use the pardon power for the reason it was created: to show mercy. Perhaps, they will heed the words of Judge William Connolly of the Nebraska Supreme Court who said, "[w]e recognize the temptation to make the prisoner suffer, just as the prisoner made an innocent victim suffer. But it is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it." Clemency is the tool to make us a more civilized society.