At 49 years old, Dennis Skillicorn no longer looks like the picture on the ID clipped to his starchy, prison-issued shirt. His mustache and hair have gone from brown to gray. Blurry tattoos set into his arms have faded to the same slate blue as the eyes magnified behind his glasses.
Skillicorn lives on death row at Potosi Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison near rural Mineral Point, Missouri. He is scheduled to die just days from now, on May 20.
Skillicorn believes he's going to heaven.
"Absolutely, I do," he says. "Yes. Thanks to Jesus Christ, and only because of Jesus Christ, can I go to heaven." Of his execution by lethal injection, he says, "I believe that it's just a doorway. It's not an end."
In 1996, Skillicorn was convicted of murdering Richard Drummond, an AT&T supervisor who pulled over to help Skillicorn and two other men whose car had broken down near Kingdom City, Missouri. Skillicorn, Allen Nicklasson and Tim DeGraffenreid became known as "the Good Samaritan Killers." Nicklasson also received a death sentence.
Skillicorn, Nicklasson and their 48 fellow death-row inmates live at Potosi until 30 days before their execution dates, when they're transferred to the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri. In 2005, Stanley Hall, Donald Jones, Vernon Brown, Timothy Johnston and Marlin Gray took the eight-mile trip from Potosi to Bonne Terre and were executed.
Since that busy year, Missouri's death chamber has been quiet. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. halted all executions after a review of the state's protocol unearthed disturbing facts. Dr. Alan Doerhoff, the Jefferson City doctor who injected the lethal drugs into 54 of Missouri's death-row inmates, admitted that because of his dyslexia, he often wasn't sure whether he had correctly measured the amounts of each of the three drugs. A mistake could cause an inmate excruciating pain, indiscernible to onlookers because of the paralyzing agent used in the mixture. Gaitan ruled that Missouri's method of lethal injection posed an "unreasonable risk of cruel and unusual punishment." Arguments on the constitutionality of lethal injection stalled executions in other states as well.
For death-row residents, the reprieve was short-lived. Gaitan's decision was reversed in June 2007 by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Then, last May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's use of a three-drug mixture for lethal injection, opening the door for a resumption of executions nationwide.
But across the country, the appetite for eye-for-an-eye justice appears to be waning. High-profile exonerations have weakened some states' resolve to carry out the death penalty. Lawmakers, forced by the recession to make deep budget cuts, are passing bills that ask for reconsideration of capital punishment for monetary reasons: Studies have shown that the cost of seeking death is higher than keeping an inmate imprisoned for life.
In 2007, Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey signed a law that abolished "state-endorsed killing." Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico signed the repeal of his state's death penalty in March of this year. That same month, lawmakers in Maryland voted to limit the use of capital punishment to cases supported by conclusive DNA or videotaped evidence. A bill to repeal the death penalty and use the money saved for investigating cold cases just passed Colorado's House. Repeal bills have been introduced in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Montana.
Skillicorn's days are numbered, but Missouri's death penalty might not outlive him by much: Two bills in Missouri's Legislature have proposed a moratorium on the death penalty and a review board to examine issues such as cost, fairness and the risk of wrongful execution.
Skillicorn could be the last criminal put to death in Missouri, which is ranked fifth in the country for most executions per capita. His execution could also be the state's most regrettable.
Past Potosi's thick, mechanized metal doors, an interview with Skillicorn takes place without barriers — no glass wall, just two plastic chairs and a table in a small white room. The guard admitting a reporter says, "He's not anyone you need to worry about."
Potosi's death-row inmates aren't separated from the general prison population. Skillicorn lives in the honor wing, where monastic adherence to the rules earns an inmate certain freedoms.
"If a guy wants to come in here and be a hardhead, if he wants to have bad behavior, they got a place for him," Skillicorn explains. "It's not a pleasant place. They got a place that's literally spending your days in a cage, no comforts whatsoever. It might be a consolation to some people on the street to picture that. But people who do want to be well-behaved, there are things available to them, too."
Skillicorn's certainty in his heavenly reward is based on his good works at Potosi. In order to sit in this open area, Skillicorn had to take a break from his job with Set Free Ministries, a Christian ministry outreach program with an office at Potosi. He's on-call for the prison's hospice, where inmates comfort and care for terminally ill inmates. Hospice at Potosi was in its infancy when Skillicorn arrived in 1996; under his watch, it has blossomed into a nationally recognized program. He is the editor of Compassion, a bimonthly magazine sent to death-row inmates and 4,500 readers around the country. The money collected from subscriptions funds scholarships for college-bound kids who have lost family members to violent crime. The magazine has awarded $36,000 in scholarships since 2001.
The transition from criminal to Christian happened during a roadside revelation, Skillicorn says. People had tried to sway him toward "this God stuff" before, he says, but he didn't know what it meant until a moment when he found himself standing on the side of a Southern California highway, his brain crunchy from meth.
Prison transformations are cliché, he knows, but Skillicorn says his salvation is genuine. "It's not about me changing my life so you'll let me out of jail or give me parole" — not options for Skillicorn — "or even not to execute me, for that matter," he says. "The only special consideration I feel I've obtained that is important out of being a Christian is from God Himself — absolution, forgiveness for the things I've been involved in."
The events leading up to and following Drummond's murder were described in devastating detail by Paula Barr. A 15-year veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star, Barr was working the crime-and-courts beat during the summer of 1994, when the Good Samaritan Killers joined the FBI's Most Wanted list. In an article dated September 1, 1994, Barr described Skillicorn as "terrifying to look at, missing a couple of front teeth, mean and strong."
She is now Skillicorn's wife.
"He was just another criminal to me when I covered his case and trial," Barr, who now goes by Paula Skillicorn, writes in a letter to The Pitch.
Skillicorn, then 35, met 22-year-old Nicklasson at the Salvation Army rehabilitation center in downtown Kansas City. The older man was staying at the shelter as a condition of his parole; he had already spent 13 years in prison for the 1979 murder of an 81-year-old Missouri farmer, killed while Skillicorn and two others robbed the farmer's home in Levasy.
Skillicorn was a 19-year-old junkie at the time of the farmer's slaying. In prison, his addiction worsened. Desperate for drugs, which were plentiful in prison, but already deep in debt to other inmates, he used a table saw to slice off the top of his right middle finger, hoping to get a morphine drip in the infirmary.
At the Salvation Army rehab center, Skillicorn stayed clean until he met Nicklasson, who had done time for beating his stepfather with a baseball bat when he was 19. Nicklasson hooked Skillicorn on a whole new high: methamphetamine. On August 24, 1994, the two men, plus Tim DeGraffenreid, a 17-year-old friend of Nicklasson's, set off in DeGraffenreid's parents' Chevrolet Caprice and steered south to score a brick of meth.
The Caprice broke down near Kingdom City. Drummond pulled over to help. The men pulled guns on Drummond, and forced him to drive. On a road in Lafayette County, Nicklasson ordered Drummond out of the car and walked him a quarter of a mile into a wooded area. Skillicorn, still in the car, thought the plan was to tie the man up and leave him there, far from the nearest phone. But Nicklasson, angry that his hostage didn't try to fight back or escape, shot Drummond twice in the head.
After dropping off DeGraffenreid in Blue Springs, Nicklasson and Skillicorn drove Drummond's car to Arizona, funding their trip by pawning guns they stole from houses along the way.
Three days later, Drummond's car got stuck in the sand on an Arizona back road. A couple who lived nearby, Joseph and Charlene Babcock, tried to help free the car. When they couldn't, Nicklasson shot them both to death, and he and Skillicorn drove away in the couple's Ram Charger. Armed with a shotgun, a .357 Ruger, two smaller guns and plenty of ammo, they headed to Tijuana, Mexico, where they abandoned the truck.
After several confusing days and freezing nights lost in the mountains, the men hitchhiked out of Mexico and took refuge in San Diego. There, a local cop stopped the pair, and Nicklasson handed the officer an ID printed with his real Social Security number. Nicklasson was arrested, but Skillicorn, who carried no ID, was allowed to walk away.
Two hours later, authorities realized their mistake and scrambled to apprehend Skillicorn. California Highway Patrol officers arrested him less than 20 miles from where Nicklasson had been caught. He didn't try to run.
"I believe that's the day God saved me," Skillicorn says. "I was ready to surrender my life and give up. You know how they say you hit bottom? That's the way I felt. I'd been involved in a lot of bad things, and I got a conscience like everybody else. I'm not a psychopath or a sociopath, you know. I just was high on dope."
Barr showed up to report on Skillicorn and Nicklasson's first federal court appearance in Missouri. She was surprised to see that Nicklasson was the taller and heavier of the two. He spoke in rebellious, bullying tones. Skillicorn stood quietly and answered questions in a soft voice.
When a judge ruled that Nicklasson and Skillicorn would be tried separately, Barr and a colleague flipped coins to determine who would cover whom. She got Skillicorn.
Nicklasson and Skillicorn were denied the opportunity to plead guilty and receive life without parole. Lafayette County prosecutor Page Bellamy sought the death penalty.
Nicklasson's case was slated for trial before Skillicorn's, but Skillicorn's was bumped ahead when Nicklasson's lawyers asked to be moved to St. Louis County, a busier docket, to face a different judge. Bellamy prosecuted both cases.
Nicklasson wanted to take responsibility for the entire crime spree and all three murders. He prepared a statement for Skillicorn's trial. "Dennis had no knowledge that I was going to murder Mr. Drummond," Nicklasson wrote in an affidavit. "Dennis did absolutely nothing. He was about a half-mile away from what happened."
Skillicorn's jury never heard Nicklasson's statement. Nicklasson's lawyers, trying to prevent their client from ruining his own case, argued that his statement was unreliable. The judge agreed.
Nicklasson's same statement was reliable enough a few months later, though, when Bellamy used it against Nicklasson in his trial.
In 1996, separate juries found Skillicorn and Nicklasson guilty and recommended the death penalty for each.
A bill challenging the death penalty has an unlikely sponsor in Rep. Bill Deeken , a Republican in the Missouri House since 2003. His view of justice — he remains in favor of capital punishment — is shot through with Old Testament-style bloodlust.
By way of example, he describes how he would punish the murderers of James Byrd, a black man in Texas who was chained to a truck and dragged for miles by three white men in 1998. Deeken says, "I'd get the black family and get three cars, tie the three white guys to the back of the bumpers, drag 'em for a mile, and if they can get up and walk off, they're free, and if they're dead, they're dead." (Two of the three Texas men were sentenced to death, the third to life in prison.)
But Deeken, who describes himself as a good Catholic, couldn't say no when members of the Missouri Catholic Conference approached him four years ago with the text of House Bill 484. The purpose of the bill was to ensure that no innocent people were executed in Missouri, they said.
"Well, that makes sense to me," Deeken says he told them.
HB 484 seeks to impose a moratorium on executions until 2012. During the moratorium, a 10-member commission would study all of the state's death-penalty cases since January 1, 1977, and compare them with a random sample of cases in which charges of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter were brought. Each case would be examined to see whether issues such as race or socioeconomic status had a bearing on sentencing. The bill also asks for a cost-analysis comparison to measure whether more taxpayer dollars are spent seeking the death penalty rather than life imprisonment.
This legislative session, Deeken introduced HB 484 in the Public Safety Committee for the fourth time. In past sessions, it faced tough opposition from two of his fellow Republican committee members, Rep. Scott Lipke and Rep. Stanley Cox, both former prosecutors.
"I always told Lipke and Cox, 'I love both of you, but guys, the only reason you're not voting for this is because you would not want to admit that a prosecutor has made a mistake,'" Deeken says.
This year, Lipke and Cox weren't on the committee, and Deeken had the support of another Republican, Rep. Tom Flanigan. On April 21, HB 484 it passed the committee. But this late in the session, the bill's best hope for survival is attachment to another piece of legislation that's further along.
In the Missouri Senate, Bill 321 — nearly identical to HB 484 except for the moratorium, which Republican leaders wanted stricken — is expected to die in committee.
Death-penalty proponents call proposals to study the death penalty steps toward abolition. That was true in New Jersey: The bill that created the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission made way for a 1997 report recommending an end to capital punishment. The report concluded that "the penological interest in executing a small number of persons guilty of murder is not sufficiently compelling to justify the risk of making an irreversible mistake." That commission also found that capital punishment cost the state more than life in prison without parole, but it ran into difficulty producing an exact figure.
An audit of Kansas' death penalty in 2003 got down to dollars and cents. State auditors, working at the request of the Kansas Legislature, found that the court costs for seeking the death penalty are 70 percent more than for a life sentence, with a median cost of $1.2 million for a capital case, compared with $740,000 for a noncapital case.
Deeken professes concern for the wrongly convicted, but he's no closet abolitionist. He wonders aloud why a condemned prisoner is allowed to stall his execution with lengthy and costly appeals — the only tool a convict has to present mitigating, sometimes exonerating, evidence. "Alls you need is one trial," Deeken says, "and if he's guilty, you put him to death."
Barr's evolution from detached reporter to Skillicorn's wife and greatest advocate happened relatively quickly.
Looking back on her reports from Skillicorn's trial in 1996, Barr writes, "I was surprised to hear that Nicklasson had done all the killing. Police assumed that he [Skillicorn] was the killer and the leader of the threesome. That is what they imparted to reporters. Instead, it turned out that Nicklasson had been in charge and had even considered killing Skillicorn when they were on the run."
But some things that came out at trial didn't make it past The Star's editing process, Barr writes. "By the time the story had gone through three editors and a copy editor, information that contradicted the existing stereotype had been replaced with background from my earlier stories."
That same year, she left The Star.
Not long after, Barr decided to write a book about Drummond's murder. She conducted more than 100 interviews on the backgrounds of the Good Samaritan Killers. But when DeGraffenreid and Nicklasson wouldn't speak to her on the record, she ditched the idea.
"By that time," she writes, "I had interviewed Dennis many times by phone or in person and we were becoming friends. We began to work together on a project aimed at helping troubled youth, which drew us closer. We soon fell in love."
Skillicorn laughs a little when he says of his wife, "We found out we had a lot in common."
The news caught Barr's former colleagues at The Star off guard. "Most of my co-workers had known me for 10 years, but instead of thinking that if I fell in love with Dennis, there must be something good about him, they chose instead to think I had lost my mind," she writes. "I did not trade my intelligence or integrity for a wedding ring."
Barr and Skillicorn were married in a ceremony at Potosi in 1997.
Barr had a son, Regi, from a previous marriage, and being a stepfather was a new experience for Skillicorn. Kids who visit a parent in prison often have little to do while the adults talk. Skillicorn worked to establish a branch of the 4-H program at Potosi, called 4-H L.I.F.E. (Living Interactive Family Education), to allow children of inmates to befriend one another and play together. The fathers in the program attend a parenting class once a week.
With Barr's encouragement, Skillicorn pestered fellow inmates to write down what they would say to troubled youth to keep them from going down a criminal road, then compiled the resulting poems, stories and artwork in a book. The publishers of Compassion magazine printed Yesterday's Choices, Tomorrow's Dreams. Fred Moor, the Perrysburg, Ohio, man who coordinates the distribution of Compassion and manages its subscription money, says more than 50 juvenile-detention centers across the country use Skillicorn's book.
Skillicorn has worked for Set Free Ministries since his arrival at Potosi, save for one break — when he was sent to Arizona to answer for the murders of Joseph and Charlene Babcock. Even though he wasn't the one who pulled the trigger, Skillicorn pleaded guilty and waived his right to a trial. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Skillicorn takes responsibility for his role in the deaths of Drummond and the couple in Arizona because he knows he played a part in a violent series of events. But he also pleaded guilty to speed his return to Potosi, where he could continue his work.
Now, he says, "It's about effecting change in a positive way, which is very fulfilling. It really is. You get that sense of purpose."
With all that Skillicorn does to fulfill that sense of purpose, he doesn't worry about his fate. He leaves that to his lawyers at the Public Interest Litigation Clinic. PILC is a nonprofit law firm that specializes in capital cases and is funded by grants, donations, the law school at University of Missouri-Kansas City and court-appointed counsel fees. Its lawyers work out of a tiny, low-profile office in Brookside.
The Missouri Supreme Court and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied all of the appeals filed by Skillicorn's first PILC lawyer, Kent Gipson, so Gipson turned to the U.S. Supreme Court. His petition argued that the prosecutor in Skillicorn's trial secured death sentences by twisting the same story two different ways: Bellamy had painted Skillicorn, the older of the defendants, as the leader of the crime spree, then convinced the jury in Nicklasson's trial that Nicklasson had been the one in charge. The Supreme Court rejected Gipson's petition in 2007.
Skillicorn's last chance is clemency.
PILC's Jennifer Merrigan prepared Skillicorn's lengthy clemency petition. She's the youngest lawyer on staff — a 2004 graduate of UMKC's law school who interned with PILC as a student before accepting a permanent position.
The clemency petition includes a 2008 statement from a PILC intern who interviewed a juror from Skillicorn's trial. The juror was given a copy of a statement that Nicklasson made in 2008, in which he admits to being the "ringleader" and says Skillicorn had no idea that he was going to kill Drummond. The intern writes, "Juror #1 stated that had he known this information at the time of the trial, it would have made a difference to him in sentencing Mr. Skillicorn ... with this information, the sentence would have been different."
Also in the petition is a letter from James Betts, the man who shot farmer Wendell Howell during the 1979 robbery with Skillicorn. Betts is serving a life sentence in Jefferson City. In the statement, dated September 2008, Betts takes responsibility for the murder, stressing that Skillicorn was outside the house when Betts killed Howell.
Skillicorn says, "Even though I've been incarcerated for nearly 30 years for different things, I just don't have a violent history. I do have a tendency to be around people who have a tendency to do violent things."
It's the 11th hour, but Skillicorn has been here before. Last July, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down an execution date of August 27, 2008, catching Merrigan off guard. With only 30 days to save her client's life, she ramped up her visits to Potosi. Several guards wanted to talk to her, Merrigan says, but had been told by prison administrators that they could lose their jobs if they did.
Merrigan petitioned the Missouri Supreme Court to stay the execution, citing interference by the Department of Corrections that was obstructing her collection of clemency materials. In response, the Attorney General's Office, which represents the Department of Corrections and was then headed by Jay Nixon, provided a statement from Potosi's warden, Donald Roper, denying that the prison's administration had discouraged anyone from speaking with Merrigan.
Meanwhile in Bonne Terre, where condemned prisoners are kept on suicide watch, Skillicorn wrote dozens of encouraging letters to his fellow inmates and worked on what he assumed would be his last editorial for Compassion. He had found replacements to take over his duties at the magazine, the hospice and the ministry.
The Missouri Supreme Court granted the stay of execution on August 20.
Last September, Merrigan acquired a memo that she says proves Roper and the Department of Corrections discouraged the prison guards from talking with her, then lied about it to the Missouri Supreme Court. "Staff should not speak directly with the attorney regarding these issues," the memo, from Roper to all Potosi employees, reads in part.
The finished clemency petition is now with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
In 2008, Nixon was still the attorney general. In that office, Nixon had asked the Missouri Supreme Court to set execution dates for several men, including Skillicorn. Merrigan doubts that the man who was committed to seeing Skillicorn die can fairly weigh the plea to save him now.
In March, Merrigan filed suit in federal court to compel Nixon to convene an independent board of inquiry to decide Skillicorn's fate, an alternative allowed under Missouri civil rights law. A month later, she filed a motion with the state asking for a stay of execution based on the pending suit. The Missouri Supreme Court denied that motion on May 4.
Taxpayers likely have covered at least $1 million in legal expenses as the state has pursued Skillicorn's execution — a debt that Skillicorn can't repay. If he was allowed to live out the rest of his natural life, he says he would continue using his time to positively influence the prisoners around him. "I can help the guy who's sitting next to me, who does have an out date," he says. Most recently, he has been studying the methods used to decrease recidivism in the prison system.
It's the same kind of work Skillicorn has done every day at Potosi for 13 years, knowing he will never get out alive.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.