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Up To Date

For Joe Amrine, Life 13 Years After Being Freed From Death Row Is Tough, But Worth It

Steve Kraske
KCUR 89.3
Attorney Sean O'Brien and Joe Amrine returned to Up To Date 13 years after their first appearance in 2003, which was just four days after Amrine was freed from Death Row.

On Monday, July 28, 2003, Joe Amrine was released from prison, after serving 17 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Four days later, shell-shocked from his first few days of freedom and swarms of media attention, Amrine appeared on KCUR’s Up To Date with Steve Kraske, wearing sunglasses.

“I didn’t want people to see the fear in my eyes,” Amrine says.

Amrine returned to Up To Date this week to give a glimpse of what life looks like for him after 13 years of freedom.

“I’m still shell shocked,” he told Kraske.

He describes the fear that he still feels everyday, fears that are different than the ones he had immediately after his release.

“I’m scared of not doing what I should do, I’m scared I’m not going to amount to what I should amount to, I’m really scared that my situation is just going to be forgotten,” he says.

Back in 1985, Amrine was given the death sentence for stabbing a fellow inmate at the state prison in Jefferson City to death. The supreme court overturned his conviction in April, 2003 and he was released a few months later.

Amrine says life for him now has more down than ups.

“Being locked up 26 years has a lot of baggage with it. Getting back into society, dealing with my inner self. It’s hard to find a job, it’s hard to be a relationship ... it's like Rip Van Winkle,” he says.

After his release, Amrine didn’t receive any assistance from the state, other than a $14 check that was leftover from his commissary account while in prison. He gave that check to his brother, who still has it today.

Credit Courtesy / Sean O'Brien
Sean O'Brien
Joe Amrine and attorney Sean O'Brien chat as Amrine walked out of the Cole County Jail in July of 2003, after spending 17 years on Death Row. He had just been exonerated of murder charges.

Sean O’Brien is the attorney who helped Amrine get his conviction overturned. The irony of Amrine’s situation, he says, is that Amrine would be better off now had he plead guilty and been released on parole. That way, he would have a parole officer helping him get public assistance to get reestablished in society.

“As an innocent person, unless you can find someone at fault who you can sue, and overcome this really difficult governmental immunity doctrine, then you don’t get anything, O’Brien says.

Amrine says he’s harbored a lot of animosity towards the state of Missouri, but he’s trying to let that go. He says he only wants one thing from the state.

“I actually went on record and said that the only thing that the state of Missouri owed me was an apology, and that was 13 years ago and I still haven’t gotten it. Actually, I just feel like the state of Missouri, to me, it’s like still trying to keep me down,” he says.

“Because I have nothing, I have no support.”

Still, he reiterates how much he loves life and loves his freedom.

Amrine came close to being executed four times during the 17 years he spent on death row, but he says his lowest point came when he was watching the news on the day of a fellow inmate’s execution. He says the first story on the news was about a protest against animal cruelty that drew more than 50,000 people.

“The very next segment was the execution and the seven people who was [sic] outside protesting. And I’m like, 50,000 people show up to protest animal cruelty, seven people came out to protest this man’s execution. That really hit home for me,” Amrine says.

Amrine fears that he’s not doing enough in the fight to abolish the death penalty, but keeping up the the daily struggles of his new life is already a persistent battle.

He got his GED and a paralegal certificate, which he hasn’t been able to use because of difficulties getting a job. Right now, he’s working at Habitat For Humanity for $7 an hour. He doesn’t have a cell phone — too confusing, he says — and he admits he isn’t great at saving money. Instead, he usually spends it all buying things for his nieces and nephews.

“I don't sense the value of money ... People make fun of me ... I get a lot of pleasure out of that, helping my nieces and my nephews, or just helping people, period. I feel my life was saved for that reason,” he says.

Amrine’s sister tells him that at nearly 60 years old, he’s still a work in progress, and he agrees — there’s still a lot left for him to do in his life, and he’s grateful every day for that opportunity.

Lisa Rodriguez is the associate producer for KCUR's Up To Date. Connect with her on Twitter @larodrig

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