They just don't make cold-blooded killers like they used to.
After 21 years of acknowledging his role in the 1974 murder of Carthage Airport Liquor Store owner James Stemmons, John Steven Martin, in an obvious ploy to gain his freedom invented a new version of the truth during an Aug. 19, 1998, parole board hearing in Potosi.
At that time, Martin insisted he was performing a mercy killing when he shot Stemmons three times in the back of the head. It was Martin's partner in crime, Leslie Sanders, who shot Stemmons initially, Martin said. Then according to Martin's recreation of reality, Stemmons, with his dying breath, begged Martin to put him out of his misery.
Martin, the killer with a heart, could not say no.
"He changed his story, Mr. Stemmons' daughter-in-law, Donna Stemmons, told me shortly after the hearing. She and nine members of the Stemmons family who attended that hearing were stunned by the turnabout by Martin, who had never made any such claims, though he had gone through numerous parole hearings.
"It sounded like it was all rehearsed," Mrs. Stemmons said. Martin's presentation included the traditional litany that his evil acts were caused by "peer pressure" and his fondness for drugs and alcohol.
Since that story did not work, it remains to be seen what approach John Steven Martin will take during his next attempt to gain his freedom, a hearing set for Aug. 19.
I know the arguments for releasing people like Martin. Our prisons are overcrowded, and yes, some people do deserve a second chance.
Martin is not one of those people.
Because of his actions, at least two people died. Another was wounded and the families of the victims are suffering to this day, a suffering that will never end, but which will be increased if Martin once again sees sunlight.
James Stemmons was not the first man to die at John Steven Martin's hands. In October 1974, while knocking over a Rolla gas station, Martin shot a man to death and wounded another man. During his 1998 parole hearing, he did not mention that murder. Did that man also beg to be put out of his misery?
Less than two months after the murder in Rolla, Martin brought his brand of carnage to Carthage. He, Sanders, and David Pugh decided to get some beer, and opted against going to Gale's Liquor Store because Martin, 19 at the time, had been carded there.
They opted to go to the Airport Liquor Store. "They had me drop them off beside the building," Pugh later testified, "and they walked around it and went in the front door and I left and went down and sat parked at the car wash out east of there."
Martin and Sanders returned to Stemmons' pickup. They had Stemmons with them. Pugh said he followed them to a field southwest of Carthage along the banks of Jones Creek.
"I was stopped out on the road and sat there for a little bit and heard gunshots and then they came over and got in the car and we left. John was carrying a shotgun and a pistol and Leslie was carrying two bottles of some kind of whiskey," Pugh said. "John said they shot him and I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Man, how come you shot so many times?' "
James Stemmons' body was found near his pickup eight hours after a customer found the liquor store deserted. He had been shot in the head three times and struck in the back with a shotgun blast.
As the three men left the body behind, they divvied up the loot.
The life of a man with everything to live for, a family that loved him, people who cared about him, countless friends, was ended for the grand sum of $115.
Sanders was found guilty of first degree murder, but that verdict was thrown out because of a faulty instruction to the jury. He later pleaded guilty to second degree murder.
A Dade County jury found Pugh guilty of robbery and kidnapping. He was found not guilty on the murder charges. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1977. Sanders and Pugh have been released from prison.
John Steven Martin was sentenced to life in prison in 1975 for murdering James Stemmons and life in prison for the murder of the Rolla man.
During his trial, Sanders said Martin threatened Sanders' wife and child if he did not go along with the robbery.
When Martin entered uis guilty plea in 1975, his story corresponded with what Sanders said. He told the judge he forced Sanders to take part in the robbery and murder. He said Pugh had nothing to do with either the robbery or the murder.
Now Martin has come up with a story designed to make him seem more sympathetic to the parole board. For the past decade, the play has not worked, but each new hearing is an opportunity for the killer to change his luck. Let's pray the parole panel does not buy the snake oil this killer is selling.
John Steven Martin does not deserve any more of a second chance than the one he gave James Stemmons.
(Note: Most of this post comes from an opinion column I wrote in August 1998.)