Fordham Law


Woman blinded in St. Louis area shooting wants to be present for her assailant's execution

Deborah Denno in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 15, 2014

Media Source

Woman blinded in St. Louis area shooting wants to be present for her assailant's execution

By Jeremy Kohler

Carmelita Donald was on a date. Her ex-boyfriend John A. Winfield was in a rage.

It was Sept. 9, 1996. Winfield called over and over for her. When he showed up that night at her apartment in Vinita Park, her sister Melody and roommate Arthea Sanders lied about where she was.

Winfield was waiting when Donald got home. They argued. Sanders slashed the tires on Winfield’s car.

Winfield stalked Sanders into the apartment downstairs and shot her to death. Outside, he cursed Donald and shot her four times. Back inside, he shot another friend of Donald’s, Shawnee Murphy, killing her. He tried to shoot a man in the apartment, but the gun either jammed or was out of bullets.

It was a night of horrors for Donald, then 24. Her friends were murdered. She had to undergo emergency brain surgery. She lost her right eye and was blinded in the left.

Donald, now 42 and living in Gary, Ind., plans to travel to Bonne Terre, Mo., to witness Winfield’s execution, which is scheduled for 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

A federal judge issued a stay of execution Thursday, citing findings that the state interfered with a witness who had been willing to support Winfield’s clemency petition. The Missouri attorney general’s office has appealed the stay.

The last thing Donald’s eyes saw was Winfield’s gun pointed at her head. She said she will watch him die in her mind.

She knows he will see her sitting just outside the death chamber. And she will create a mental picture of what his face looks like, a little more filled out now than the last time she saw him. His eyes closing, his breath stopping.

When Donald reads that Winfield’s lawyers say the execution should be halted because of the risk that he could suffer, she pauses.

“I don’t want to sound like an evil person or anything, but, OK, it might hurt him a little bit,” she said.

Through a Missouri corrections spokesman, Winfield declined to be interviewed.

Concern over comfort for the condemned can be hard to understand for victims who suffered greatly.

“That’s your punishment,” Donald said. “Excuse me, but I’m still a bit pissed; sorry, but I am. I have … three grandchildren, and I’m not going to be able to see them.”

Murphy’s brother, Adam Murphy, also plans to witness the execution. “It should come down to what the families want, and this family wants justice,” he said. “There is nothing decent about this man.”

Donald and Winfield met in 1987. She and her son Mykale Donald eventually moved in with him. They had a daughter, Symone Winfield. The couple broke up in early 1996, months before the shooting.

Symone was 4 when her father shot her mother. Today she is a 22-year-old stay-at-home mother in St. Louis caring for a 3-year-old son and 2-month-old daughter. She has written to Gov. Jay Nixon asking him to spare her father’s life.

“He has a kind and loving heart,” she wrote. “I know the gravity of this tragedy. I love my mother dearly and I have a relationship with her as well. I know how this has affected her, and I’m not excusing what happened. But my dad is a good man and he does not deserve to be executed.”

In an interview, she said she hadn’t decided whether she would attend the execution but said, “If my dad wants me there, I will be there.

“At the end of the day, they’re still my mom and still my dad,” she said. “I didn’t choose sides; I still love them both dearly.”

CRUEL AND UNUSUAL?

Though it frustrates victims such as Donald, the debate over whether lethal injection could be cruel and unusual punishment threatens to derail capital punishment in the United States.

For nearly half a year, it seemed the Missouri execution machine could not be stopped. The state executed six inmates in six months using drugs made by compounding pharmacies whose identities the state kept secret.

While lawyers for the condemned argued that the secrecy over the drugs put their clients at risk of excruciating deaths, the state overcame one challenge after another. In the process, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Missouri inmates weren’t entitled to information about how the execution drugs were made unless they could propose a more humane method for their execution.

It seemed to be a decisive victory for states planning executions.

But the landscape changed after a botched execution in Oklahoma on April 29 saw the condemned man, Clayton Lockett, writhing on the gurney and finally dying of a heart attack 43 minutes after the process began. Questions about how execution drugs are made suddenly had more urgency. The White House ordered a review of capital punishment in the U.S., saying the Lockett execution fell short of humane standards.

The Post-Dispatch and other news media sued the Missouri Department of Corrections to compel it to release information about the drugs the state uses for executions. The news organizations had each requested records regarding the drugs, including the supplier, and were denied by the department, which said the pharmacy providing the drugs is a member of the execution team, whose identities are confidential under state law.

Even Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster spoke up, voicing his discomfort with the state’s reliance on secrecy. In comments to a conference of St. Louis lawyers, Koster proposed the creation of an execution pharmacy operated by the state, to bring more transparency to the lethal injection procedure.

The U.S. has not seen another execution since Lockett’s. Missouri had planned to execute another murderer, Russell Bucklew, on May 21. But Bucklew’s lawyers argued that a rare vascular condition could cause terrible suffering with a lethal injection. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened to halt the execution to allow lower courts more time to consider whether the injection could violate Bucklew’s civil rights.

The high court did not give a reason for the rare intervention into an execution, so there was no way to know how the decision could affect upcoming executions.

But it was such a rare action by the court that “it should be a signal to states to be careful,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York, who studies the death penalty.

The next U.S. execution is scheduled for Tuesday in Georgia, a murderer named Marcus Wellons. On Wednesday, Winfield and a murderer in Florida named John Henry are scheduled to die.

Winfield has appealed to Nixon for clemency, including affidavits of support from a juror who regrets not holding out for life in prison, a prominent criminal defense lawyer who says he should have done better work on Winfield’s behalf, and from several people, including Symone Winfield, who say he’s a changed man.

Carmelita Donald scoffs at this. “Who isn’t nice when they’re in jail?”

Winfield has also petitioned the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis to rehear the issues regarding the execution drugs. His lawyer, Joseph Luby, says the state “cannot move forward with the execution of Mr. Winfield until much more is known about the drugs the state plans to use and the effect the drugs will have on him.” That petition was denied Thursday, and Winfield’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s frustrating for Carmelita Donald, who says she just wants justice.

It’s been 18 years, and she’s still trying to get used to being blind. She doesn’t like to read Braille. She doesn’t like to walk with a cane. When she needs to move somewhere, she grabs the arm of her mother, Olivia Donald.

She said she learned recently that the state of Tennessee may bring back the electric chair and that Wyoming is considering the firing squad.

“So there is a variety,” she said. “If they are scared of lethal injection, do something else.”