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Supreme Court won’t block Missouri execution of rehabilitated death row inmate

The high court declined to block an execution that over 70 corrections officers called unwarranted. Missouri executed him Tuesday evening.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court refused on Tuesday to block the execution of a Missouri man who claimed that carrying out his death sentence would be unconstitutional because he was rehabilitated in prison.

Over 70 correctional officers asked Governor Mike Parsons to grant Brian Dorsey clemency. The highly unusual request stems from Dorsey’s recovery from drug addiction and his spotless disciplinary record during his 17 years in a maximum security prison for murder — a feat the officers said is unheard of.

Dorsey asked the Supreme Court to block his April 9 execution, citing his remorse for the murders and his changes while in prison. Dorsey told the justices he belongs to a unique class of death row prisoners who have achieved redemption and rehabilitation.

“If the goals of punishment mean anything, they must mean that Mr. Dorsey’s life should be spared,” Kirk Henderson, a federal public defender representing Dorsey, wrote in his appeal. “Executing Mr. Dorsey after 17 years of extraordinary reformation and impeccable conduct will not sufficiently further the goals of retribution and deterrence.”

The justices denied Dorsey’s application. The court did not explain its order and there were no noted dissents. Missouri carried out the execution Tuesday evening, declaring Dorsey dead at 6:11 p.m.

Henderson said Dorsey spent every day of his almost two decades in prison trying to make up for a single act of violence. He said if anyone deserved mercy, it was Dorsey.

“Executing Brian Dorsey is a pointless cruelty, an exercise of the state’s power that serves no legitimate penological purpose," Henderson said in a statement after the court's order.

Tim Lancaster, a retired corrections officer who signed the clemency letter, said Dorsey was completely rehabilitated. Lancaster said he thought the entire purpose of sending people to prison was to have them atone for their mistakes and work to do better in the future.

“Brian’s execution doesn’t make sense to me," Lancaster said after the court's order. "He could have spent the rest of his life doing a valuable service in the prison as staff barber, and continuing to be a role model to younger offenders. I and so many of my fellow correctional staff are losing a humble, hardworking person we cared about today, and the Potosi community is worse off for it.” 

Dorsey was sentenced to death row for the 2006 murders of Sarah and Ben Bonnie. Dorsey was at the couple’s house drinking and playing pool after bingeing crack cocaine and not sleeping for 72 hours, leading to a drug-induced psychosis.

When the Bonnies and their children were asleep that night, Dorsey entered the couple’s bedroom and shot them. Dorsey fled the house in Sarah Bonnie’s car but confessed to the murders when later confronted by police.

Dorsey pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.

During his 17 years in prison, Dorsey maintained his sobriety and become an exemplary inmate. He was chosen to live in the prison’s honor dorm because of his conduct and exceptional behavior. Dorsey also worked as a staff barber at the prison, tending not only to his fellow inmates but also cutting the hair of the correctional staff and the prison wardens.

The correctional staff told Parsons that it wouldn’t make sense to execute Dorsey because he had satisfied Missouri’s stated penological goal of rehabilitation.

Dorsey told the Supreme Court that his rehabilitation makes his death sentence unnecessary.

“This court has recognized that an execution can be barred by the Constitution in extraordinary circumstances when it ‘ceases realistically to further the[ ] purposes’ of capital punishment,” Henderson wrote. “When a death-sentenced person has spent years on death row with this kind of record, the penological goal of rehabilitation has been satisfied and the capital punishment goals of retribution and deterrence are not met by an execution.”

Dorsey said his crimes were the result of severe mental illness and florid drug psychosis. Dorsey used cocaine to self-treat his depression. On the night he killed the Bonnies, he was experiencing delusions and hallucinations from withdrawal.

During his almost two decades behind bars, Dorsey got clean and found a purpose in his community.

Sarah Bonnie was Dorsey’s cousin. Despite also being a victim of his crime, almost 80 of Dorsey’s family members — some of whom were also related to Sarah — advocated for his clemency. Dorsey’s family said the murders were a complete aberration from his normal behavior.

The family said Dorsey’s struggle with depression and addiction led him to murder the Bonnies but now that he is sober, they have forgiven him.

In a separate petition before the court, Dorsey urged the justices to review his case for violations of his right to competent counsel. While Dorsey confessed to killing the Bonnies, he claims his attorneys did not attempt to get any plea deal that would have helped him avoid a death sentence. His public defenders were paid a $12,000 flat fee for their entire representation of Dorsey.

Dorsey argued that the flat fee contract violated his Sixth Amendment rights because his attorneys had a conflict of interest. Dorsey claimed he had a viable defense that would have prevented his death sentence, but his attorneys didn’t work with an expert to evaluate his mental illness.  

Missouri urged the court to deny Dorsey’s appeals. The state said these claims should have been presented nearly a decade ago in another petition before the court instead of right before his execution.

The Missouri Supreme Court denied Dorsey’s post-conviction claims. The state said the court would be violating the system of dual sovereignty if the justices reviewed the appeal now.

“Dorsey’s convictions and sentences have been exhaustively reviewed and affirmed in state and federal court,” Gregory Goodwin, chief counsel for the state’s public protection section, wrote in Missouri’s brief. “A grant of certiorari now would allow Dorsey an end-run around the rules that Congress and federal courts have crafted to maintain our federalist system of government.”

In a final written statement before his execution, Dorsey thanked supporters who fought for his clemency and apologized to the loved ones of his victims.

“To all of the family and loved ones I share with Sarah and to all of the surviving family and loved ones of Ben, I am totally, deeply, overwhelmingly sorry. Words cannot hold the just weight of my guilt and shame,” Dorsey said, according to the statement provided by his attorneys. “I still love you. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I am sorry I hurt them and you.

And to the state and his executioners, Dorsey wrote: "I carry no ill will or anger, only acceptance and understanding.”

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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