Hard Line 

There's a reason that so many prison movies fetishize death row. All the rituals and panicked legal and fourth-estate machinations leading to the death chamber — or sometimes, at the last second, away from it — make for gut-grinding entertainment. The last meal, the last rites, the reverent silence among the other prisoners. The four-hankie conversation with the grieving mother, the widow in training, the angry son doomed to his own life of crime. James Cagney, Montgomery Clift, Sean Penn. Charlize Theron! But wait. Cut to the gritty lawyer or the rogue reporter racing to the governor's mansion with proof that the condemned man is innocent. Clint Eastwood! Rob Morrow? As the clock inches closer to midnight, the warden watches as the execution is about to get under way. Then the hot line buzzes with the call: Let him go. Cue music.

That's a fine Hollywood tradition. But it's bullshit. The way it works is quieter, harder, and a lot less given to reprieve.

Staff writer Nadia Pflaum, who spent the spring following the case of Missouri's first death-row inmate to get a death warrant since 2005, waited with the condemned man's defense team the night he was scheduled to be executed. Her report last week on Plog captures the frustration and weariness of a few people who tried everything the law allowed to move one man off the lethal-injection gurney. But despite their efforts and those of some Missouri legislators who want to re-examine capital punishment in their state (see Pflaum's May 14 cover story, "Dead Man"), the executioner is back in business. Pflaum reports:

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon never called Dennis Skillicorn's lawyer at the Public Interest Litigation Clinic to say that he had denied Skillicorn's petition for clemency. Scott Holste, the governor's press secretary, sent a statement to media outlets shortly after 5 p.m. last Wednesday, but nobody notified Jennifer Merrigan, Skillicorn's lawyer. As a result, Skillicorn himself didn't find out that he had been denied clemency until after Merrigan read it on The Kansas City Star's Web site, almost an hour after the press release was issued.

An hour might not seem like much, unless it's one of someone's last on Earth. And it's more than an act of courtesy to let a condemned man's attorney know that the petition has been denied — it's part of the legal process.

The scene at the Public Interest Litigation Clinic's offices the night of Skillicorn's execution wasn't as tense as one might have expected. Interns sat in front of their laptops, joking and eating pizza while researching case law for last-minute motions. Merrigan herself worked on an emergency motion for a stay of execution, to be submitted to the "death clerk" of the Missouri Supreme Court, arguing that the state's clemency process is "so grotesquely flawed that it violates due process of law."

Yes, the Missouri Supreme Court employs a death clerk.

A little after 9 p.m., PILC's director, Terri Backhus, walked into the room. "We're done," she announced, her tone grim. The clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who weighs emergency motions from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had just informed Backhus that Alito had denied all five of Skillicorn's still-pending motions.

Everyone was quiet for a moment or two. "This is premeditated, ritualized killing," a lawyer said. "State-sanctioned. This is truly sick."

Reality started to sink in, but the lawyers kept working. One Washburn University law student pulled up a Connecticut statute addressing the issue of notification as it relates to clemency denials. "Yeah, from 16 years ago," Merrigan said. She sighed, then added Connecticut Board of Pardons v. Dumschat to her motion. 

Merrigan said Paula Skillicorn, Dennis' wife, spent hours with him at Bonne Terre before leaving at 7 p.m. Paula planned to return at 10:45 for the execution.

At a quarter to 11, Merrigan walked out to take a quiet moment alone before calling Skillicorn for the last time. "How do you say goodbye?" one of the law students wondered aloud. "It's pretty fucked-up to be the last person that someone will ever talk to," another added.

Merrigan was on the phone for about 15 minutes. Afterward, her eyes tired and red, she returned and reported what Skillicorn had told her. "He said that he hoped that this wouldn't make me jaded or cynical," she said with a wry smile. "I guess if he were a selfish person, he would have cried. But he said, 'I gave most of my strength to my wife and the rest to you.'"

He also said that the last 30 minutes he spent with Paula were the hardest 30 minutes of his life.

Moments later, Merrigan received a call that her last emergency motion had been denied. The law students popped new beers. Backhus joined them. Merrigan opened another Microsoft Word file on her laptop. "What do I call this?" she asked herself. "Final motion?"

Nothing marked the passing of 12:01 a.m. on the wall clock. The phone stayed silent. The older lawyers in the room, who had been through this process before, said this is how it happens. Nobody calls to tell you when your client is dead. You just have to assume it.

Cheryl Pilate, one of the "death qualified" lawyers helping Merrigan at the end of the fight, has been assigned to represent the next several death-row inmates facing execution in Missouri. It's kind of like being a public defender for the back end of the justice system.

"In reality, very few people want to do this work," Pilate said. "It's regarded as the armpit of the law. But since executions were halted briefly in 2005, these cases have piled up like railroad cars reaching — I hate to say it, but — reaching the end of the line."

And because Nixon and the state of Missouri are clearly committed to getting executions back on track in 2009, Skillicorn's looks to be only the first of many.

Reginald Clemons is scheduled to die Wednesday, June 17.

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