Were it not for the luck of the draw and for an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in Missouri, Gary Black might have already paid the ultimate price for the murder of an MSSC student.
Instead, he will have the opportunity to be a free man, thanks to a decision issued by the Missouri Supreme Court Tuesday.
Black was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with the racially-motivated October 1998 stabbing death of Jason Johnson. According to testimony at his trial in Jasper County Circuit Court, Black's girlfriend said she thought Johnson made a pass at her in a convenience store. Black and his girlfriend were both white, while Johnson was black.
The case was reviewed in the Aug. 23 Turner Report entry, which is reprinted below:
It wasn't the first time Jason Johnson had heard the names. When you're African-American and live in southwest Missouri, the unfortunate fact of life is there are going to be times when you're going to be called every vile racial epithet in the book.But this time was different. This was the last time anyone would ever call Jason Johnson by that evil name, that six-letter word that starts with the letter n. The fountain of red spurting from his throat spelled the end of the line for Jason. In a few moments, he would pass out due to lack of oxygen. After he was rushed to Freeman Hospital, it was determined quickly that he had suffered brain damage.Within a couple of days, Jason Johnson, a student at Missouri Southern State College, was dead. He had drowned in his own blood, the victim of a fatal stabbing.The man who stabbed him, Gary Black, 44, Joplin, was arrested shortly afterward in Oklahoma. An officer attempted to give him the Miranda warning. Black snarled, "F--- the Miranda warning. You tell that m-----f----- Dankelson (Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney Dean Dankelson) that I never attempted to kill anybody. The people I've attempted to kill, I've killed. Remember that, remember that." He pointedly added, "Cops, too."At some time in the near future, Gary Black is scheduled to be executed by the state of Missouri for the murder of Jason Johnson. His last chance to avoid the ultimate fate will come Sept. 14 when his plea his heard before the Missouri Supreme Court.Gary Black was no stranger to crime long before he ever met Jason Johnson. At the age of 21 in 1976, he robbed a Newton County man and shot him in the back. He was sentenced to prison where he did not make any friends. At the sentencing phase of his trial in Jasper County Circuit Court, a Department of Corrections official noted that Black had committed assault five times during his decade-long prison stay.Black received a new three-year lease on life in November 2001 when the Missouri Supreme Court stayed his execution. Now his attorneys are throwing everything into their appeal and hoping that something sticks.The details of Black's crime are laid out in documents filed with the Missouri Supreme Court. The road to Gary Black's execution began Oct. 2, 1998, in Joplin. Jason Johnson finished his work at a store at Northpark Mall in the later afternoon and joined his friends, Andrew Martin and Mark Wolfe, at Garfield's for a few beers.They left at 9:30 p.m. and stopped at a convenience store, according to the court records. Johnson bought some more beer and some tobacco.He stood in line with a woman named Tammy Lawson, Gary Black's girlfriend. It was that fateful coincidence that ended up costing Johnson his life.Court records indicate that Ms. Lawson went to Black's car and told him that Johnson had said something "perverted" to her while they were standing in line. She pointed him out as he left the store. Johnson opened the passenger-side door on Martin's pickup and they drove away, followed by Wolfe in his Camaro, and though they didn't know it, by Black and Ms. Lawson.Johnson, Martin, and Wolfe were headed toward the Dolphin Club. When Martin stopped at the light at 5th and Joplin, Black pulled alongside him in the right lane. The cars stopped in front of the club. Black and Johnson shouted at each other. Martin testified at Black's trial that Black leaped out of his car, reached through the passenger window of Martin's pickup, and stabbed Johnson in the neck, severing his jugular vein and nearly severing his carotid artery. Before he left his car he told Ms. Lawson he was going to "hurt that n-----." As he walked away after stabbing Johnson, he said, "One n----- down."Johnson was able to get out of the pickup and came at Black with a 40-ounce beer bottle. He managed to throw it at him. Black got back into his car and drove away. Blood was flowing everywhere. Bystanders did what they could to help Johnson, using towels and clothing to attempt to stay the flow. Paramedics arrived and did what they could, but it was too little, too late. Black had effectively executed Jason Johnson.At the trial, prosecutors convinced the jury that the murder was premeditated. By following Johnson, then killing him, Black had shown cool reflection. It was the first time in nearly four decades that a Jasper County jury had handed out a death sentence.Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments from Black's attorneys claiming that he received ineffective counsel during his trial and that the evidence did not support a first-degree murder verdict. Within a couple of months, the court will determine whether the will of the Jasper County jury is carried out.
The Southern District Court of Appeals rejected Black's appeal, but the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and remanded it back to Jasper County Circuit Court for a new trial.
"Black's counsel was ineffective in failing to impeach three eyewitnesses," the court ruled. "No other witness addressed the accuracy of the three eyewitnesses' perceptions or showed that the eyewitnesses had given prior inconsistent statements."
These statements, the court said, went directly toward the question of whether Black acted with deliberation. The eyewitness testimony changed Black's case from second degree murder and a lesser sentence to a death penalty case.
"The jury indicated it was confused by the term 'cool deliberation,' the court ruling said. "Had the jury heard the evidence impeaching these eyewitness accounts, there is reasonable probability that the trial's outcome would have been different."
That Aug. 23 mention in The Turner Report was the only local media coverage of Black's attempt to overturn his conviction until the local TV stations reported it earlier tonight. The last mention of Gary Black from the Globe, as far as I can tell was three years ago when an appellate court stayed his execution.
Someone needs to keep an eye on Jasper County Circuit Court where four people who had their driver's licenses revoked by the state Department of Revenue for alcohol-related driving offenses are suing the Department to have their driving privileges restored.
All four cases are under the jurisdiction of Judge Richard Copeland, who has restored the privileges of many such drivers in the past. The state department has had to go to the appellate courts to keep these people off the streets.
In September, The Turner Report featured numerous items about how often the higher courts have had to appeal Copeland's decisions, which seemed to be using technicalities to put these drivers back on the streets.
The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District, in September, ordered the revocation of a Jasper County woman's driving privileges Tuesday, reversing a Copeland decision that gave the woman back her license on a technicality after she refused to take a blood alcohol test.In the state of Missouri, refusal to take a breath test is automatic grounds for license revocation. This was at least the sixth time over the last several years and the second time in the last eight days that a high court has had to reverse Copeland's decisions to give people who had been arrested for alcohol-related traffic offenses the opportunity to do it again.The five other sitting Jasper County judges, William Carl Crawford, Jon Dermott, David Dally, Steve Carlton, and Joe Schoeberl, have combined for one such decision. That one was made my Judge Dermott, who only made his decision after it became apparent that it wasn't clear who was driving a car the night in question.In Missouri, the decision to revoke a driver's license is made is an administrative decision made by the Department of Revenue. The decision may then be appealed in a civil action at the circuit court level.The most recent decision revolved around an incident which occurred on May 2, 2003, in Carterville, according to court records. Carterville police officer Ronnie Houdyshell was called to the corner of Main and Hatcher, where residents had said they had seen "an intoxicated person pull up in a vehicle and then slump over."According to court records, Houdyshell found Ms. Spry sitting on the passenger side of the car, apparently asleep. After another officer arrived, Houdyshell woke the woman up, though it took a while. When Ms. Spry opened the passenger-side of the car, Houdyshell "observed a half-empty bottle of vodka and a beer bottle. Spry appeared to be extremely intoxicated," according to the court decision.Houdyshell had not seen her driving and couldn't tell if the engine was warm, but he saw nothing suggesting there had been another person driving. He asked Ms. Spry how she had gotten there. "She simply replied, 'Me.' "She was taken to the Carterville Police Department for sobriety tests. According to the court records, she said she had been drinking earlier in the evening, but she did not say how much she had to drink. After the field tests, Houdyshell determined she was drunk and asked her to take a breath test. She was told that refusal to take the test could mean revocation of her license for one year.According to the court record, she started to take the test, but did not give enough of a sample. She tried again, but she "just quit blowing." Houdyshell explained once more what refusal to take the test could mean. "She just quit," Houdyshell said.Houdyshell told Judge Copeland the same information at the revocation hearing, according to the court opinion. Ms. Spry's attorney called no witnesses, but asked Judge Copeland for a directed verdict in Ms. Spry's favor. That's exactly what happened. In his ruling, Judge Copeland said there was "no probable cause to believe Defendant was driving while intoxicated."As mentioned earlier, this is not the first time the appeals court has had to reverse one of Judge Copeland's decisions.
In September, the court rejected another of Judge Copeland's decisions. The Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals Monday backed the Department of Revenue's appeal to Copeland's decision that put Sara Ruth back on the streets.Ms. Ruth's license was revoked for one year after she refused to take a breathalyzer test following a DWI arrest. Ms. Ruth had appealed the Department of Revenue's decision, and after a hearing, Copeland determined that she had been arrested for driving while intoxicated, but had not refused the breathalyzer test and ordered her driving privileges reinstated even though the record clearly contradicted his judgment.The record said that on the evening of May 29, 2003, Captain Jason Wright and Officer Wanda Hembree were on patrol in Joplin. While they were stopped at a traffic light, they saw a Ford Ranger stopped in the right hand lane in front of them. The passenger door was open and someone was leaning out of the car. The officers pulled up behind the car.According to their report, the officer smelled alcohol. They asked the driver if anything was wrong. She said "her friend had too much to drink and was sick." Wright saw vomit inside the car.Wright asked Ms. Ruth if she had been drinking. She said she had been drinking a couple of hours earlier. Wright detected a smell of alcohol coming from Ms. Ruth and wrote that Ms. Ruth's eyes were "watery, bloodshot, and glassy; she was wobbling and staggering; and her speech was slurred." Ms. Ruth had no problem with an eyetracking test, but failed the walk-and-turn test, the report said.A preliminary breath test indicated she was drunk, according to the report, so she was arrested for driving while intoxicated. When they arrived at the Joplin Police Station, Ms. Ruth was given her Miranda rights, answered some questions, then she said she did not want to answer any more."The records show she was asked to submit to a chemical test of her breath. Hembree determined (Ms. Ruth) refused to submit to the test and noted the refusal" on the report.At her trial, Ms. Ruth testified that since she had already been given the breathalyzer during the stop, she had asked if she could "have time to think about it" when the second request was made. She said she was never asked and that the officer simply said on the report that she had refused.Based on that testimony, Copeland restored Ms. Ruth's driving privileges.In the appeal, the Department of Revenue said Copeland's decision was wrong because there were reasonable grounds for arresting Ms. Ruth for driving while intoxicated and the record showed she had refused the breathalyzer test. Under Missouri law, all persons who drive on state highways are "deemed to have consented to a chemical test of their breath."According to the appellate court ruling, "The evidence presented at trial unequivocally shows that (Ms. Ruth) initially refused to submit to the breath test."The appellate court ordered Copeland to reinstate the one-year revocation of Ms. Ruth's license.
On Aug. 29, 2000, Judge Copeland made a similar decision in the case of Paul Riggin, 48, Joplin. According to the court record, in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 1998, outside a Joplin nightclub, an officer tried to approach Riggin as he got into his car. Riggin waved him off, got into the car, and drove off. When he was stopped, the court opinion said, Riggin "had a strong odor of alcohol," admitted to having had four or five drinks and he failed three field sobriety tests. He also tested positive on a breath test given at the scene.No witnesses were presented at the revocation hearing, only the officer's written report. Judge Copeland ruled that the Director of Revenue had failed to prove the case and restored Riggin's driving privileges.
On July 7, 2000, Judge Copeland restored the driving privileges of Paul Sutton, 59, Joplin. Sutton had been involved in an accident on Dec. 19, 1998, according to court records. Sutton "admitted to ingesting two beers just before the accident." He failed several field sobriety tests and a preliminary breath test indicated "a high level of alcohol was present in his blood."Riggin consented to another breath test at the station but "failed to give an adequate sample." Despite the officer's testimony, Judge Copeland ruled there was no evidence that Sutton had refused to take the test and put Sutton back on the streets.
The appellate court also overruled Judge Copeland in its Jan. 22, 1999, decision to revoke the driving privileges of Michael S. Delzell.According to court records. on April 6, 1997, a Joplin restaurant manager noticed "a man sitting in the driver's seat of a car in the restaurant parking lot with the engine running." The car had not been there a few minutes earlier, the manager said.It turned out the man had come to the restaurant to pick up his wife, who was a restaurant employee. The only trouble was she had left two hours earlier. The officer who investigated noticed that Delzell appeared to be intoxicated. Delzell failed field sobriety tests. He admitted he had been drinking and driving. When he was taken to the police station, he failed a breath test.But since neither the officer nor the restaurant manager had actually seen Delzell driving, Judge Copeland restored Delzell's driving privileges.Judge Copeland also restored the driving privileges of Jeffrey Lasley, a decision which was reversed by the appellate court on Oct. 21, 1997.Even though Lasley had failed field sobriety tests and a breath test indicated he had a blood alcohol content of 1.2, Judge Copeland gave Delzell back his license, indicating that the arresting officer had no probable cause to stop Delzell.
It will be interesting to see whether these latest four drivers are returned to the roads.
The only advantage small, daily newspapers have over the big-city dailies is that their editors and reporters supposedly know their neighborhoods and can fill the pages with the kind of local news that the interlopers from the big city can't touch.
That's why came as such a surprise late last week when The Neosho Daily News was trounced on two stories right in its own backyard.
The Sunday Joplin Globe featured the news that East Newton R-6 Superintendent Jeff Kyle, who had only been with the district for one year after serving five years as superintendent at Jasper, was leaving to take an assistant superintendent job upstate. Last Friday, The Globe featured an article on a Seneca elementary principal's decision to give an after-school detention to a kindergarten student. The Globe submitted the article to AP, which slightly reworked it. That story was then picked up verbatim by the Daily, which added no local quotes or any legwork on the story.
Why these lapses happened, I have no idea. The job of small-town reporters is to call sources of information frequently and to develop sources who will call you when something is up. At The Press, our city council and school board reporters, including me sometimes, knew we were not going to beat a morning newspaper on an evening story, so we developed a habit of going into depth on items that were scheduled to come before those bodies and sometimes telling the readers what was going to happen before it happened.
One such instance occurred when the city of Carthage was considering creating a Department of Public Safety, which would include the police and fire departments. Strong opposition to the proposal came from people who thought it was an effort to dilute the fire department and strengthen the hand of Ed Ellefsen, who was Carthage police chief at the time.
Hard-working reporter Ron Graber, now the Press' managing editor, and one of the best practitioners of small-town journalism when he gets the chance to practice it, got on the phone and called every city council member and quickly determined that the proposal was not going anywhere despite all the publicity it had been given.
Graber wrote his story. I ran it with a typical tabloid-style headline: "Department of Public Safety: Stick a Fork in It." That night, the council voted the proposal down, and the ever unflappable Chief Ellefsen arrived at the meeting with a box of plastic forks, which made a great page-one photo for the next day's Press.
If you don't show the kind of aggressiveness that Ron Graber showed on that occasion, you're going to get beat by the big-city newspapers. And when you are not the top source of local news, you're losing the only advantage you have in the marketplace
Hopefully, last week was just a bad week for The Daily.
Good news for stockholders of Carthage's Fortune 500 company, Leggett & Platt. Newratings.com quotes analysts Morgan Keegan as raising their estimates for L&P's residential furnishings components segment. The analysts say the segment is likely to grow at a faster rate than earlier estimates had indicated.
The new estimates are for 10 percent growth, which would be the fifth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth for Leggett & Platt.