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Missouri death sentence case gets another look

Two cases in Missouri are under review for possible wrongful execution, generating new scrutiny of the state's death penalty.
Jessica Coaley, left, and her mother, Anna Lopez, both of St. Louis, hold gifts made for them by Roy Roberts at Lopez's home. Roberts was executed in 1999 for the murder of a prison guard.Kyle Ericson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Many death row inmates proclaim their innocence, but Roy “Hog” Roberts, a big man, loud and profane, was adamant. He was so adamant that in the waning days before his 1999 execution for the murder of a prison guard, he demanded a polygraph test.

Attorney Bruce Livingston looked at the results and walked into Roberts’ small gray cell at Missouri’s Potosi Correctional Center and told him the news: He passed. The test indicated Roberts was telling the truth when he said he did not hold down guard Tom Jackson while other inmates stabbed him.

Tears rolled down the big man’s cheeks. His voice grew unusually quiet. “When do I get out of here?” he asked.

Livingston remembers the heartbreak of explaining that the polygraph was of no real value unless it swayed the governor. It didn’t. A few days later, Roberts was put to death.

Back in the spotlight
Roberts’ case is back in the spotlight amid heightened scrutiny of the death penalty in Missouri — and a new investigation in a separate case into whether the state executed an innocent man.

In 2000, the anti-death penalty group Equal Justice USA released a national report citing 16 potential cases of wrongful executions. Both Missouri cases are among them.

“I think if I had to list all 16 I would put him (Roberts) first,” said Claudia Whitman, who wrote the report. “There was really nothing there to convict him.”

There has never been a known case of an innocent person being executed in the United States, and those on both sides agree such a determination would create unprecedented concerns about the death penalty.

Death penalty opponents are discussing the Roberts case now that St. Louis prosecutors are trying to determine if Larry Griffin, executed in 1995 for a drive-by killing in another case, was innocent.

So far, no one has asked the state to reopen the Roberts case. Whitman said that while her study raised doubts, it simply was not exhaustive enough to merit asking for a re-examination.

Griffin was the immediate suspect in the drive-by killing of 19-year-old drug dealer Quintin Moss, who was shot 13 times. Revenge was the suspected motive in the 1980 slaying: Weeks earlier, Moss was believed to have killed Griffin’s older brother.

Witness in question
The only witness testimony at Griffin’s trial came from Robert Fitzgerald, a career criminal from Boston who was in St. Louis under the Federal Witness Protection Program.

University of Michigan Law School professor Sam Gross, who spent a year investigating the case, said in his report that Fitzgerald “developed a reputation as a snitch who couldn’t produce convictions because Boston juries wouldn’t believe him.” Fitzgerald died last year.

Gross cited two other factors that shed doubt on Griffin’s guilt: The first police officer at the scene now says the story told by Fitzgerald was false. And a second shooting victim, who did not testify at trial, now says Fitzgerald was not present at the shooting.

Gordon Ankney, who prosecuted the case, believed Fitzgerald’s testimony. He also noted that an off-duty officer saw Griffin get in the 1968 Chevy Impala used in the shooting the day of the murder.

Still, Gross’ report offered enough new information that even members of the Moss family asked prosecutor Jennifer Joyce to reopen the case.

“I don’t think there is a single prosecutor who wouldn’t take a second look at it,” said Joyce. “Hopefully (the investigation) will help protect the integrity of the system.”

Renewed scrutiny of death penalty
Missouri has executed 64 men since the death penalty was reinstated in 1989. By the mid-1990s, executions had become so common they drew few protesters.

But the Roberts case came at a time of renewed interest.

During a 1999 visit to St. Louis, Pope John Paul II asked Gov. Mel Carnahan to spare the life of convicted killer Darrell Mease, who was days away from execution.

Carnahan, a Baptist Democrat, commuted the sentence to life in prison, citing “the extraordinary circumstances of the pope’s request.”

Roberts’ execution was set a few weeks later. Livingston suggested the decision to execute him was partly political, noting the governor was preparing to run for the Senate in 2000.

“Carnahan was still taking serious flack for the Mease case,” Livingston said. “It was Roy’s bad luck to be next up.”

Jessica Coakley was 19 when she watched Roberts die. Coakley’s mother was a lifelong friend of Roberts. Coakley recalled a gregarious man who sent her homemade birthday cards and even crafted a high school graduation gift from his prison cell.

A case of bad timing?
Friends of Roberts say bad timing was part of his life. He was convicted of a restaurant robbery to which another man later confessed.

While Roberts was jailed in 1983, a riot broke out and Jackson, a veteran guard six months from retirement, was stabbed repeatedly in the heart, eyes and stomach by two inmates.

Ray Newberry, who was chief investigator of the riot for the state, remains certain that Roberts was guilty.

“He was the one that held Mr. Jackson,” Newberry said. “Hog Roberts was a troublemaker. He was obese and he had a loud mouth, and he just caused problems.”

Roberts’ supporters doubt he had any role. They point out:

  • Initial reports made no mention of anyone holding the guard while he was stabbed. Roberts supporters wonder how the 300-pound man could have been missed. Three guards and an inmate testified against Roberts, though the inmate later recanted.
  • Another guard told investigators he was struggling with Roberts at the time of the killing, far from the site where Jackson was stabbed.
  • Roberts’ clothing was blood-free. The attack “was bloody, just awful, and Roy Roberts’ shirt did not have a drop of blood on it,” said Margaret Phillips of Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Roberts, true to his nature, remained adamant to the end. His last words: “You’re killing an innocent man and you can all kiss my ass.”