Federal judge halts John Winfield’s June 18 execution in Missouri, finds state interfered with his clemency

The Missouri capital punishment circus has a new exhibit: State officials meddling in an inmate’s clemency process.

A federal judge in St. Louis found evidence that the Missouri Department of Corrections clamped down on an employee at the state prison in Potosi who became the subject of an investigation after he said he would support clemency for John Winfield. Clemency is the process by which an inmate appeals to the governor to have his death sentence tossed out. It’s against the law for state officials to interfere with that process.

Winfield was scheduled for execution a minute after midnight on June 18, his punishment for the 1996 shooting deaths of two women (a third victim survived the shooting, but remains blind from it). Now, given the alleged behavior of Missouri Department of Corrections higher-ups, there’s no telling when Winfield’s execution might occur.

Court records show that one of Winfield’s attorneys, Jessica Sutton, paid a visit to the home of Terry Cole, the laundry supervisor at the Potosi Correctional Center in May. Cole looked after Winfield as he worked in the laundry room for five years at the prison and found that Winfield was among the “elite 1 percent” of inmates on the account of his good behavior.

According to court filings, Cole told Sutton that while he generally supported capital punishment that in Winfield’s case he couldn’t argue with the concept of clemency for Winfield.

The next day, Cole told a prison administrator about Sutton’s visit. Cole came away with the impression that the Department of Corrections didn’t have a policy one way or another about its employees having a position on an inmate’s clemency, so long as those employees didn’t make it sound like they were speaking on behalf of the agency.

Cole followed another department policy about telling prison staff about visits from inmate attorneys when he notified his supervisor of Sutton’s visit. That supervisor told Potosi’s warden, a discussion that quickly triggered an internal investigation against Cole, suggesting that he had become “over-familiar” with an inmate by visiting with Winfield’s attorney. Department of Corrections officials also accused Cole of visiting with Winfield’s family, which Cole denied.

State officials have said that they investigated Cole because another inmate in January had complained that inmates who worked under Cole extorted money from other prisoners while Cole cast a blind eye on what was going on. That position strains credulity because the investigation started only once Cole self-reported his conversation with Winfield’s attorney about clemency, not any time prior in the months that prison officials had heard the other inmate’s allegations.

Cole isn’t the only person who has expressed openness to clemency for Winfield. Symone Winfield, daughter of John Winfield and whose mother was one of his shooting victims, has advocated for clemency, as had one of the jurors in Winfield’s case and the Missouri NAACP.

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