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The Online Version
of the Magazine
of Cornell Law School


Spring 2010


Volume 36, No 1

Joseph Amrine

Joseph Amrine

Birds Flying


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Table of Contents  Featured Article

My View From Outside: Exonerated Death Row Inmate Speaks

by Joseph Amrine


In April 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Joseph Amrine, an African American death row inmate at the state penitentiary in Jefferson City since 1986. An all-white jury found Amrine guilty of fatally stabbing another black prisoner. Prior to the 2003 decision, Amrine lost four appeals based on ineffective counsel, recantations of three inmate snitches who testified for the prosecution, and eyewitness testimony for the defense by a prison guard. Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Judge Richard Teitelman said Amrine’s case “presents the rare circumstance in which no credible evidence remains support the conviction.” The Jefferson City prosecutor declined to appeal the high court’s decision, based on new DNA evidence, unavailable at trial, proving Amrine’s innocence. Shortly before the 4-3 decision by a partisan Missouri Supreme Court—four Democratic-appointed judges prevailed over three Republicans—Amrine had selected music for a funeral service scheduled to follow his lethal injection.

Amrine has visited Cornell Law School to talk with students about his experience.


I was born and raised in Kansas City. In the projects. My old man was a pimp.

If there was child abuse arrests when I was coming up, my father would still be doing ten life sentences. That’s how it was. Beatings—you name it. Out of my five sisters, every one of them claim they’d been molested by my father.

They locked me up at twenty-one. I was serving a fifteen-year term [for burglary and robbery] at the time when I was accused of murder. I had maybe eight months to go before parole.

Penitentiary murder is like—”You killed him, we going to kill you.” The [prosecutor], the prison investigators—they all figure, “We’re going to kill two birds with one stone.” See, we were both convicts and both black.

I been out now six years, almost seven. I’ll be fifty-four in October. Having a job and the responsibility of rent and stuff like that—I never experienced that ‘til I got out.

Guys who get convicted of murder who actually did it are out there on parole and have a lot of things given to them—Medicaid, mental health care, Section 8 for an apartment, food stamps.

But guys who been exonerated, like me, we get none of that since we’re not on parole.

It was easier for me on death row than it is now being on the outside.

I have a lot of animosity. When they convicted me and give me the death sentence, I said to myself, I hope they do execute me and after they do it I hope they find out I was innocent. That’s how bitter I was to society.

Man, I got to deal with it like I did on death row—one day at a time.

My brothers and sisters, they put a lot of distance between me and them. In this society, basically all it takes is for the authorities to say you did it. Since I was in prison already they think—Well, Joe did it.

What people should do is make sure that guys facing the death penalty have a lawyer who’s qualified and knowledgeable. I had a public defender. But in penitentiary terms, he would be defined as a public pretender.

When I got out, I was like Rip Van Winkle. Everything was new to me. Everything was difficult.
I have so much missing from me. I had a twenty-six-year-old son who I hadn’t seen since he was two.   

Seventeen years on death row, I watched sixty-three people get executed. Some of them I knew since the third grade. Some of them I was in a cell with when [guards] come and said, “You need to turn around and cuff up because we got a warrant for your execution.” Then they took him away.

Man, man, man—you just don’t know.

It’s not difficult for me to talk about all this. I don’t consider it no therapy. The way I see it, I don’t want nobody else to go through what I been through.

I look forward to life. Period. I’m not saying a job or a wife or whatever. Just life. Life itself.


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Ithaca New York 14853