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Government, Politics & Issues

Nixon says he still believes in death penalty when appropriate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 13, 2011 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday he still believes in capital punishment when it is appropriate but did not shed much light on his decision to commute the death sentence of Richard Clay to life in prison without parole.

At a news conference at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park to announce more scholarship aid for students in the Access Missouri program this semester, Nixon said no one should read anything from his decision on Clay into what may happen with next month's scheduled execution of Martin Link.

He said he has not yet been briefed on the case involving Link, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 9. Link was convicted of killing 11-year-old Elissa Self-Braun in St. Louis in 1991.

"I'm not soft on my position on capital punishment," he said as several reporters questioned him about the Clay case. He noted that in 2009, he allowed the execution of Dennis Skillicorn to proceed. Before that, Missouri had not executed any prisoners since 2005.

Recalling his 16 years as attorney general -- the state's top law enforcement officer -- Nixon said he brings "a long and strong history to this issue" and that "each case is different." He said a number of factors were involved in his decision to commute Clay's sentence, though he did not get into specifics.

As governor, Nixon said, "you try to make sure you understand the victim's family's side of all of this," adding that the final determination is "not a snap your fingers" kind of decision, "not a decision that's made lightly."

He said he decided not to have a board of inquiry review the case because that would be "sidestepping" his own responsibility to decide. He also said that neither reported shortages of a capital-injection chemical nor the involvement of Kenny Hulshof in the prosecution of Clay played a role in his decision.

Clay had been scheduled to die Wednesday for his role in killing Randy Martindale of New Madrid in 1994. He has maintained he is innocent, and his lawyer plans further appeals.

Nixon does not share Clay's view of his innocence. In the statement issued by his office when the commutation was announced earlier this week, the governor said:

"After an exhaustive review, I am convinced of Richard Clay's involvement in the senseless murder of Randy Martindale and find that the evidence clearly supports the jury's verdict of murder in the first degree."

More access to money in Access Missouri

Nixon's statements on Clay came after he announced that students qualified to get scholarships under the Access Missouri program would receive increases for the coming semester.

The increased amounts are:

  • A maximum of $470 for students at public community colleges, up from $275.
  • A maximum of $1,010 for students at four-year public institutions, up from $950.
  • A maximum of $2,160 for students at private institutions, up from $1,900.

Nixon and David Russell, the state's commissioner for higher education, said the additional money is available because fewer students than anticipated had applied for the Access Missouri grants for the current school year. Russell said the state had expected 103,000 students to participate, so earlier amounts had been set conservatively to ensure the program had enough money to go around.
About 46,000 students will receive scholarships under the program during the spring semester, as part of the $58.7 million the state is investing in Access Missouri this year.

Nixon said the increases for the end of the current school year would not necessarily carry over to the 2011-2012 school year; those amounts would be determined when the budget for the next fiscal year is finalized.

Emphasizing the importance of keeping higher education affordable so Missourians can receive the education and training they need, Nixon pointed out that a tuition freeze over the past two years has helped keep the cost of college down. He acknowledged that the freeze is not likely to remain in place, but he said he hopes colleges and universities can keep their tuition increases modest, under 4 percent, in line with inflation over the period that tuition has been held steady.

College scholarships in general, and the Access Missouri program in particular, were the subject of legislative maneuvering in Jefferson City last year.

Issues included whether aid should be equalized for students attending public and private institutions, or whether students at private schools should get any state aid at all.

In the end, Nixon signed a bill that kept scholarship amounts steady through the 2013-14 school year, with higher awards for students in private schools, then equalized the amount of aid for students in private or public four-year schools for the 2014-15 school year.

Nixon announced the increased amounts of scholarship aid after touring an automotive technology laboratory at the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College. He noted that the program, where 15 students will be trained this coming semester on how to work on hybrid electronics in cars, was set up with help from the state's Training for Tomorrow initiative, established in 2009.

Noting that the state's community colleges provide "agile, efficient training" for students in fields where they are likely to find jobs, even in a tough economy, Nixon pointed out that the college worked with employers to determine the best kind of training needed right now.

"As a state," he said, "our job is to ensure that more Missouri students have access to these programs, so they can compete for the jobs of tomorrow."

On another economic issue, Nixon said he had not yet been able to analyze what effect a tax increase passed in Illinois earlier this week may have on Missouri. But, he said, "we think it will be a business generator for Missouri."

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