The story begins with a routine news release that we got April 1 from the Department of Corrections announcing that, “On Sunday, March 31, 2013, at approximately 9:42 a.m. Offender Robert Bullington #44003 confined at the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Missouri was pronounced dead at a local hospital.” It gave a few more details about his age (71) and what he had been in prison for since April 13, 1982 (a Boone County conviction and sentence of life without parole for fifty years for murder and other crimes).
Actually, Mandi Steel at the corrections department told us, he was doing a life sentence for murder plus 100 years plus 20 years plus two five year terms, all of them being done consecutively for murder, armed criminal action, burglary, and exhibiting a dangerous and deadly weapon. The news release did not say how he died. That information didn’t come to us for several days and from a non-prison source. Actually, the department seldom mentions how an inmate died unless the inmate was murdered.
The routine news release was going to lead to a routine story for our newscasts that afternoon. But we decided to find out what the Boone County murder case was all about. What happened is something that often happens to reporters who start looking for some details about an event. We wind up with a completely unexpected story or set of stories. And although his imprisonment went back to 1982, there was a link to a contemporary issue that we’re covering. And as often happens, a story that you think is going in one direction goes in another and maybe another and sometimes still another. Such is the story of and behind Offender Robert Bullington #44003.
The first thing we learned was that his conviction was in Boone County. But the case had traveled from St. Louis County to Jackson County with a couple of stops along the way at the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D. C.
It is not unusual for inmates under a death sentence to take their cases to the United States Supreme Court as often as they can to get out from under it. Bullington was unusual because he took his life-without-parole sentence to that court—and fought to keep it. It is that case that forms a link between something the legislature did in the late 70s with something the legislature is doing this year.
The story that developed that day and in the few days since in no way makes out Robert Bullington to be anything than what he was. Robert Bullington was someone who did not belong on the streets. He was a sex offender and a killer. Before he committed the crime that made him part of Missouri’s criminal law history, he had been sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping a woman and raping her. But the state Supreme Court later ruled he could not get a life sentence for kidnapping because no ransom was demanded. He got a new trial and a ten-year sentence that put him on the streets in time for a worse crime.
The Missouri legislature this year is working on a 1,000-page bill realigning and adjusting Missouri’s criminal laws. It’s the first time since 1977 that the legislature has taken the criminal code, which has been modified many times in ways that added much disorder to the system. New crimes have been created. New punishments have been created. Drug crime alone is completely different than it was 36 years ago.
The 1977 bill, which went into effct January 1, 1979, was the first comprehensive recodification of the state’s criminal laws since 1837, as we recall. The Missourinet covered that effort. It’s a staggering thing to ponder. Think of how much society had changed in that 140-year gap. It’s only taken thirty-six years to require a new rewrite.
Well, anyway—we learned as we were checking on Bullington that Bullington was the first person tried for murder under the then-new Missouri law that was part of the 1977 criminal code revision. It was that revision that changed the procedure for sentencing someone to be executed. That’s when Missouri went to the bifurcated proceeding that is, in effect, two trials. In the first trial, the jury determines whether someone is guilty of murder. The same jury then considers the penalty in what is in effect a second trial. The prosecutor has to present evidence showing the murder was so ghastly and so depraved that the killer deserves to die. The convicted killer’s lawyer presents evidence to counter the prosecution’s claim, and the jury then reaches a second verdict that is life or death. The Bullington case, though, became more than a trial and a penalty trial.
Bullington broke into a St. Louis County house intending to rob it in 1977. He kidnapped 18-year old Pamela Sue Wright, kllled her, and dumped her body in a stream where it was found a few days later. She had drowned or been drowned.
The case was so notorious that it was shifted across the state to Jackson County where a jury convicted him in the fall of ’78 and in the penalty phase sentenced him to life-without. But he wasn’t in prison very long under that conviction before another court ruling changed the way juries were assembled in Missouri.
You see, in those days, Missouri allowed women to be excused from jury duty becasue, well because they were women. If a woman didn’t want to be excused, she could stay in the jury pool. But if she didn’t want to serve on the jury she could take the woman’s exemption. The United States Supreme Court held that provision unconstitutional, allowing Bullington to get a new trial. The prosecutor decided to ask for the death penalty again. Bullington’s lawyer took that issue to court and it went all the way up to the Supremes in Washington. The split court ruled that the jury in the first trial had rejected the prosecutor’s bid for death during the penalty phase of the first trial, the second trial required in the 1977 revision. The court said the prosecutor’s bid to again try for execution constituted double jeoparty. So Bullington went to trial again, this time by a jury in Boone County and was convicted again, and because the jury in the first trial had rejected the death penalty, got life without parole. That was April 12, 1982.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan’s column on Friday (the 5th) tells the story from a different approach, including how the famous Bird Man of Alcatraz becames part of the Bullington narrative. He writes that Bullington died when he threw himself off a scond-floor of his housing unit of the penitentiary near Jefferson City. The Corrections Department says the incident is still under investigation.
Sometimes it’s the story behind the routine words of a news release that uncovers the otherwise-forgotten historical context of a contemporary issue.