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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.