Page 7 of 7
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.