Religious leaders seek clemency for Skillicorn from governor

JEFFERSON CITY | Religious leaders who have worked in prison with convicted killer Dennis Skillicorn urged Gov. Jay Nixon on Monday to spare his life.

Skillicorn, 49, is scheduled to be executed at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, and state and federal courts so far have rejected requests for delays. Skillicorn would be the first person executed in Missouri in almost four years.

Speaking to reporters Monday at the state Capitol, several people who have worked with Skillicorn in prison said his death sentence should be lifted. They said his counsel to fellow inmates makes society safer.

"Dennis is a very good apple, if you will," said Sam Finley, who has worked with Skillicorn through Master Life, a Bible study and service organization. "He's a positive apple in a big bushel. If you take that apple out, something's going to replace that apple."

While in prison, Skillicorn has assisted with terminally ill prisoners, a family strengthening program for inmates and their children, a national death row newsletter and efforts to set juvenile offenders straight.

His supporters say the former Kansas City man has turned his life around during his latest stint in prison.

By age 13, Skillicorn was injecting drugs. He dropped out of school. He took part in a 1979 burglary in the western Missouri town of Levasy in which an 81-year-old man died, and at age 20 was sentenced to 35 years in prison for second-degree murder. He was paroled in 1992.

In 1994, Skillicorn was one of three people involved in the killing of Richard Drummond, an Excelsior Springs businessman who stopped to help them when their car broke down on Interstate 70 in Callaway County.

Drummond was forced at gunpoint to drive Skillicorn and his two accomplices west toward Kansas City. In rural Lafayette County, Drummond was marched into a field and was shot twice in the back of the head by Allen Nicklasson.

Although Skillicorn did not pull the trigger, it was he who took a wallet out of Drummond's pants and ordered Nicklasson to "empty the clip in his head," former Lafayette County prosecutor Page Bellamy has said.

After Drummond's murder, Skillicorn and Nicklasson drove west in the slain man's car. When the vehicle broke down in the Arizona desert, they approached the home of Joseph Babcock, who was shot and killed by Nicklasson after driving the pair back to their vehicle. The victim's wife, Charlene Babcock, was then killed at the couple's home.

Nicklasson also has been sentenced to death in Missouri. The third accomplice in the Drummond case, Tim DeGraffenreid, was 17 at the time of the killing; he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sent to an out-of-state prison.

One of the people who says Skillicorn should be spared is Jack Pyle.

Pyle — now 60 years old and living in the Fort Worth, Texas-area — said he was being held on drug-related charges at the Clay County, Mo., jail in 1994 when he met Skillicorn. Pyle said that Skillicorn warned him to take control of his life while pointing to himself as an example for the consequences of not doing that. The two have stayed in touch through letters and phone calls.

"He showed me that my thinking was so flawed, and he pointed it out to me that if I didn't get my act together, I was going to be where he is today. And that hit home," Pyle said. "It took a while, I didn't come around overnight. But he was determined, he will persevere."

Deciding whether to grant clemency will be up to Nixon, who until January led the attorney general's office that defended Skillicorn's conviction. Spokesmen for Nixon have said the governor believes in the death penalty as a deterrent to crime but will consider clemency requests that are submitted.

Jennifer Merrigan, one of Skillicorn's attorneys, said that although clemency is rarely granted, she has "some optimism" the death sentence could be lifted.

Including Skillicorn, there are 50 men sentenced to death in Missouri.

The last person to be executed was Marlin Gray in October 2005. Gray was one of four men convicted in the deaths of 21-year-old Julie Kerry and her 19-year-old sister, Robin. Police say the sisters and their male cousin were forced to jump 80 feet into the Mississippi River from the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis.

On Monday, the Supreme Court set a June 17 execution date for Reginald Clemons, who also was convicted in that case.

Executions were halted in 2006 when a federal judge declared Missouri's lethal injection process was unconstitutional. The state has since adopted written procedures for lethal injections that have been upheld by the courts.