Dustin Steinhoff, Staff Writer
Joseph Amrine and Reggie Griffin are two African American men who were convicted of crimes they did not commit, were sentenced to death, and currently make up 50 percent of the total death row exoneration rate of Missouri. They are using their personal experiences to try and spread the word about the corruption that takes place within court cases for inmates and how the death penalty almost killed them for crimes they were innocent of.
Amrine and Griffin spoke at the Millennium Student Center in Century Room A at 12:30 p.m. on March 16. They attracted such a crowd that more chairs had to be provided in order to seat all the attendees.
Griffin is a St. Louis native who was sent to a prison in Jefferson City after being charged for assault. Griffin was later transferred to Moberly Correctional Center, where a series of events would take place, taking away 23 years of his life.
Griffin described the day he found out about a fellow inmates murder. Griffin had woken up, jogged around for a while, and he was then called in for count. He had lunch and then went to go wash his clothes for his recreational period.
“Around 2:30 p.m., some guys came in saying someone had been stabbed,” Griffin recalled. “I did not think much of it. People in prison get stabbed all the time.”
Around 4 p.m., two officers came to his cell with orders to lock him up with no knowledge as to why. Griffin was placed in solitary confinement and was held there for a possible investigation.
Griffin was not concerned, though. Around 30 or 40 other inmates were also considered suspects. Griffin thought it would work itself out.
In 1988, a guard came to him and said to report to control center. There, Griffin was shackled and taken to court with capital murder charges. He went through a series of hearings and was eventually told that the state intended to seek the death penalty for the crime he did not commit.
The jury found Griffin guilty after 45 minutes of discussion. However, Griffin received a copy of what they intended to use as aggravated circumstances, which were not his—given the fact that they had another person’s birthday and social security number. The judge did not overturn the verdict and Griffin was given a death sentence.
Griffin was placed on suicide watch, put in a cell with a paper gown and was monitored by a camera at all times. After some time, Griffin was released from suicide watch and was returned to a regular cell as a death row inmate.
“You are sitting there and you cannot believe it. You think, ‘did I deserve this?’ It plays with your mind,” Griffin said.
Over the course of his journey, a number of Griffin’s lawyers encouraged him to plead guilty and take the life sentence with parole after 50 years.
Eventually, one of Griffin’s lawyers was able to find the classification file Griffin had told her to look for that proved Jeffrey Smith, the man actually guilty of the crime, was found to have a homemade weapon in his pocket the day the murder took place. Griffin was given a new trial based on the new evidence. The judge ruled he had no jurisdiction to rule on the evidence.
The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and was overturned. Griffin had spent the years from 1988 to 2011 on death row. He was not released from prison until 2013.
“Even though I am free, I still lost,” Griffin said.
In 1986, Amrine was sentenced to death for the murder of another inmate, a crime he also did not commit. He was on death row for 17 years due to the false testimony of several inmates who later admitted they had lied. Amrine was also given multiple trials after jurors in two different trials were found out to be racist.
Amrine was released from prison in 2003 when the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence. He was 46 years old.
“When I went to prison, my son was two years old. When I got out, he was in his twenties,” Amrine said.
Their battles did not end after their exoneration, however. While former inmates on parole are given access to programs such as Medicaid, exonerees are not able to qualify for it. Amrine was given $133,000 for the years he spent in jail for a crime he did not commit and was told he had to pay $56,000 in taxes. Griffin was not given any compensation and was charged for room and board for the time he spent in prison. Though difficult, Amrine tries to stay positive.
“If I spent the rest of my life mad at everything, it is not worth living,” Amrine said.
Instead of being angry at their circumstances, Griffin and Amrine have channeled their anger to try and promote change. Attendees were encouraged to sign up for the mailing list to Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to receive updates on upcoming executions, one of which is scheduled to happen on March 20.