Class Helps Missouri Death-Row Inmate Get New Trial
The Associated Press
August 13, 2001
A group of journalism students got a new trial for a man on death row when they uncovered evidence that prosecutors had encouraged another suspect in the case to lie about the severity of his possible sentence.
On Aug. 3, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple ordered Richard Clay retried in a 1994 killing.
The state will appeal Whipple's ruling, said Scott Holste, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon's spokesman. Holste declined to comment further.
The new information was discovered by students in Webster University Professor Ed Bishop's journalism class.
"Being 24 years old, I'm so idealistic in that I feel that through journalism I can make a difference. Now, there's proof in front of me that I can," said Holly Rauch, who got a master's degree in communications from Webster in May.
Clay, 36, was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to death in the shooting of Randy Martindale. Prosecutors said Martindale's wife, Stacy, was having an affair with Chuck Sanders, a friend of Clay's, and hired Clay to kill her husband.
Clay insisted Martindale was alive when he and Sanders left the Martindale home the day Martindale was killed.
At trial, Sanders told jurors he was headed to prison for 10 years for his role in Martindale's death.
But Sanders told the students that he knew his plea deal called for just five years behind bars -- and that prosecutors urged him to mischaracterize his punishment to make his testimony appear more credible. Sanders eventually got a five-year suspended sentence.
In his ruling, Whipple wrote the state violated Clay's right to a fair trial by failing to disclose details of Sanders' "flexible or negotiable" plea deal.
Prosecutors had argued that they are required only to disclose existence of a plea deal, not its contents -- a claim Whipple said "defies Supreme Court authority and common sense."
"The state needed the jury to believe Sanders to convict Clay," Whipple wrote. "Without Sanders' testimony linking Clay to Martindale, the state's case against Clay falls apart."
Prosecutor H. Riley Bock, who tried Clay's case, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Bishop said Thursday that when he assigned his students to investigate the case, as well as that of a second death row inmate, he did not expect anyone to get a new trial. He even told the students that was not the goal.
"Our goal was to thoroughly investigate and turn that into a good newspaper story," he said.
Bishop said he modeled the assignments after well-publicized efforts by students at Northwestern University in Illinois, whose investigations have been instrumental in freeing three inmates wrongly sentenced to death.
Bishop hasn't decided whether to continue such projects, though he said the students found it very rewarding.
Clay, who is being held at the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking an interview.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press.