The talking about, and the seeing

DISCLAIMER: This blog is going to be about me. It relates to subjects that undoubtedly impact specific other people in much deeper, more profound and often sadder ways, and I would not suggest that the effects on me are in any way comparable. This is just about my perspective, for anyone who might care to know.

As some readers will already know, my other job has been that of a tour guide at the historic Missouri State Penitentiary. Obviously some things have developed in recent days that impact that job … perhaps more on that in another blog, another time.

One of the stories that I have gained some familiarity with for that job is that of the Bobby Greenlease kidnapping. Sixty years ago that little boy was taken from the Catholic school he attended in Kansas City and was murdered by what some would call two “losers” who, it is argued, never showed remorse for killing him.

I walk guests by the cells his kidnappers and killer sat in on death row. I walk them to the small building in which those lives and 38 others were ended, invite them to sit in the chairs where 40 died, and tell them how the process was carried out.

I confess a certain pride in my work. I enjoy being able to inform and entertain people with the history that I have been told, researched, memorized and learned to relate. I like to think some of my guests are even impressed with my knowledge or my delivery.

I feel other things, too. I am a father. In the case of the Greenlease kidnapping, the story of a 6-year-old boy’s death and the knowledge of how terrifying and friendless his final moments were leaves me sobered, no matter how many times I retell it.

Friendless and terrifying they were. His killer, Carl Austin Hall, tried first to strangle Bobby with a piece of rope that proved too short. When Bobby struggled, he was struck in the face and head several times. Then Hall resorted to a gun and, holding Bobby down in the floorboard of the car, tried to shoot him in the head. A first shot missed and Bobby was paralyzed with fear. That allowed the second shot to hit. Hall later told investigators that he considered killing Bobby nothing more than disposing of evidence that could implicate him.

His accomplice, Bonnie Brown Heady, showed remorse only for the manner in which the pair was caught. She blamed Hall for not being able to lay low and costing them the $600,000 ransom their crime had earned from the Greenlease family to take her to their dream life together as they had planned. While being driven down the gas chamber, Heady told the warden, “At least I put flowers on Bobby’s grave,” a reference to his having been buried in the flower garden of her St. Joseph home.

Point in fact: Carl planted the flowers, not Bonnie.

So when does this blog become about me? Right about now.

You see, for the many things that horrible crime’s anniversary might mean to other people, I find myself thinking about what I see as a bit of a personal paradox.

I spend so much time matter-of-factly walking around a gas chamber, relating stories like that of Heady and Hall, talking about what it was like to die of cyanide gas, what final hours were like, even discussing with people what it might have been like to watch Heady and Hall die.

In less than I month I will be a witness to an execution.

Allen Nicklasson is scheduled to be executed October 23. Nicklasson has been called a “Good Samaritan” killer.

In August 1994, Nicklasson, Dennis Skillicorn and Tim DeGraffenreid were stranded on the side of the road in a stalled car when Richard Drummond, a supervisor from AT&T stopped and offered to let them use his phone. Nicklasson held a .22-caliber pistol to Drummond’s head and ordered him to drive to Lafayette county where he walked Drummond into the woods and killed him. Nicklasson and Skillicorn later got stuck in Arizona in Drummond’s vehicle. Nicklasson killed a man who tried to help dig them out, Joe Babcock, then went to Babcock’s home and killed his wife.

Skillicorn has already been executed for his role in the Drummond murder. DeGraffenreid served time for second degree murder.

So how, then, will I feel watching his execution?

I don’t think I’m the only member of the media who would tell you that we develop something of a sense of detachment. We cover death, brutality, cruelty, tragedy and loss on a regular basis. Often we find ourselves presented with gruesome or somber details that might or might not be “on the record.” We write the story, we move on.

I don’t think I’m revealing any great industry secret that most of us have dark senses of humor. Coping mechanism? Maybe.

None of this means we are immune. My weakness, if nothing else, is when a story involves children. I have had days when I’ve taken an early lunch break just to go home and hug my girls so I can get back to work more easily.

So back to the question. How will I feel seeing a man lying on a table knowing that other people are taking his life? I’ve thought about this many times since taking my job at Missourinet, knowing that I would likely one day be a witness to an execution.

Perhaps the best word to describe the modern execution process is “sanitary.” There is no exposition, no fanfare, nothing that one might call “ceremony.” There is just a carefully written protocol with its timeline and instructions to be carried out. As some who have been or are with the Corrections Department have told me, it is their job to carry out the state’s sentence, nothing more, nothing less. If the offender is cold, he is not denied a blanket out of some sense of being undeserving as a consequence of his crime.

It is exactly what lawmakers in the 1930s hoped for when several efforts were mounted to end the old execution method; hangings conducted in the county in which the crime was committed. Those events were public spectacles in which sometimes thousands of men, women and children … yes, entire families … turned out to watch the event or view the body.

Those lawmakers wanted the process to be more controlled, more contained and more private. A man lying on a gurney in what amounts to a hospital room is a far cry from throngs of spectators, on some occasions shouting and jeering.

What I cannot anticipate is the release of emotion from those tied to the event; the family of the victim, the family of the accused.

For the former, this is a situation that has continued since I had just started to drive. I’ve held three jobs, welcomed five children and gone on paying my bills while they’ve dealt with an investigation, trial, appeals and already one execution.

For the latter, one wonders how long they’ve been dealing with issues related to their loved one and whether there were problems pre-dating the crime for which he has been convicted. There is also the worry that comes with having a loved one locked up in a prison surrounded by people convicted of violent offenses.

I think about all these and other things and in the end, the answer is that I don’t know how I will feel. Will my disconnect as a reporter allow me to remain as stoic as the walls of that execution chamber, only there to do the job to be done while whatever plays out, plays out? Will I find myself moved by the emotions of those I talk to who are emotionally invested? What will the way I handle it tell me about myself as a person?

I wonder how long it will take after the event to know the answers.

Sing me a song, Mr. veto override man

It’s six o’clock on a Tuesssdayyyy…..

The regular crowd’s wand’ring in.  

There’s a bunch of them in Jefferson Ciiiity  

Waitin’ for the session to begin.

Someone says, “Jog my memory, 

I’m not really sure how this this goes.   

But we’re here for a meet, and when it’s complete          

We might overturn some Nixon vetoes.

La la la di dada     

La la, di di da da dum.

And the lawmakers are practicing politics 

 As the businessmen plead in loud tones. 

They’re sharing a hope for an override 

But the numbers are dropping like stones.

Get me the votes, veto override man,   

Says the billionaire’s shadow in the hall.  

Raise the prescription tax on the old folks     

And help me avoid any taxes at all.

La la la di, dada    

La la, di di da da dum…

We don’t know why that tune started flowing through our mind as we strolled the legislative halls of the Capitol today, starting to feel the heartbeat of the place that returns when our legislators are there.

It’s the veto session. Starts tomorrow at noon. And it could be a doozie.

We don’t remember anything like this one and we’ve been hanging around the halls for something more than four  decades. National teevee networks are sending crews to see if Missouri’s legislators really do want to decide what parts of the U. S. Constitution will be recognized here. House Bill 456, the gun bill that will let local authorities arrest any feds with badges trying to enforce federal gun laws, is one of 29 bills from the Spring session that will be considered. Governor Nixon vetoed it with a lengthy constitutional analysis. Majority Republicans have accused him of practicing politics. One might think the National Rifle Association would love this “defense” of Second Amendment rights. Not this bill. The NRA, it laays pretty low.

And we’ll see if the legislature thinks it’s okay to cut business and income taxes but also increase taxes on the senior citizen voting bloc’s prescription drugs and the college kids’ textbooks. Govenor Nixon has spent the summer on his “Save the Veto” campaign and it seems to be working despite Republican and business interest complaints that he’s using state resources to defend his actions. His critics prefer not to talk about the hundrreds of thousands of dollars (nay, millions of dollars) funnelled by one person through the business organizations to buy radio and television commercials snidely attacking the Governor for having the temerity to fight a presumably veto-proof majority. And it appears he might win on this issue.

Veto sessions are held on the first Wednesday after the second Monday in September. They cannot last longer than ten days. It’s a part of the Missouri Constitution that legislators still honor. It has not always taken two-thirds votes in each chamber to override vetoes. That’s only been with us since the 1875 Constitution. Before that it took only a simple majority in each chamber.

While Governor Nixon’s vetoes of 29 bills and four lines in appropriations bills might seem like a prodigious effort, it pales when compared to the efforts of others in the last two decades. King Marc Powers of the Kingdom of Legislative Arcania, a small territory in the Capitol, compiled a list a couple of months ago of all veto overrides in state history and especially of the last 20 years.

Nixon’s greatest vetosplosion was in 2009 when he vetoed 23 bills and 65 lines. Governor Holden vetoed thirty bills in 2003. But that’s it. He didn’t veto anything in the budget. He is the undisputed champion of the line item veto with 236 in 2001.

Mel Carnahan’s most combative year was 1999 when he vetoed nine entire bills but drew lines through 43 parts of other bills. In ’97, he vetoed a dozen and line-itemed 19. Governor Blunt in ’05 vetoed a pair of bills but line itemed 41.

So here are the standings of combined vetoes and line items since 1993.

1. Holden 244 (2001)

2. Nixon 88 (2009

3. Carnahan 52 (1999)

4. Blunt 53 (2005)

5. Nixon 33 (2013)

5. Carnahan 31 (1997)

6. Holden 30 (2003)

The first veto overridden by the legislature came before Missouri was a state. We had permission to form a state constitution, elect a governor and legislature, and transact business as if we were a state for a year or so before we were admitted to the Union. The tone was set for Missouri contrariness even then because Missouri had a provision in its first constitution ordering the legislature created by that constitution to pass such laws as may be necessary “to prevent free negroes and mulattoes from coming to, and settling in, this state, under any pretext whatsoever.” Congress refused to accept Missouri’s Constitution until that provision was removed. Missouri, as usual, complained about being bossed around by the federal government but finally agreed to pass a law saying that part of the Constitution would not be enforced. That satisfied Washington and we became the 24th state on August 10, 1821.

Our first state governor, Alexander McNair, vetoed a bill establishing salaries for member sof the legislature. That became the first bill overridden.

Governor Daniel Dunklin became the vetoingest Governor in his time and the most vetoes overridden when he vetoed 12 bills granting 47 divorces and the bills were overridden in 1833. In those days the legislature had the authority to grant divorces. Sorry we mentioned that. It might give some of these people ideas today. But it’s history.

From 1855 until 1976 there were no veto overrides. Democrats showed young “Kid” Bond a thing or two by overriding his veto of a Nurse Practices Act. A strongly bipartisan legislature overrode Joe Teasdale’s line item veto of money to build a new state office building. The Truman building catty-corner from the Capitol went up shortly afterwards. And that was the last override until 1999 when Governor Carnahan vetoed the partial-birth abortion bill and a strong bipartisan majority overrode that one.

Is it likely that we will see a lot of vetoes overridden in the session starting tomorrow? History tells us “no.” Of the 212 full vetoes and 381 line item vetoes by the four governors since ’93, including Nixon’s numbers this year, there have been only six overrides. What seemed like a good idea in May cools off in the four months until override time in September. People who crossed the partisan line in the Spring are more likely to side with their governor in the Fall. And others, having read a veto message that points out sloppy bill-writing, decide to try to get it right next year.

La la la, di da da

La la, didi da da dum.


Rick the ingrate

The Missourinet forgot to skewer Texas Governor Rick Perry a few days ago when we talked to him during his job-recruiting visit to our state.  But the fact is this:

By rights, Missourians should consider Texas little more than a southern colony. If it hadn’t been for Missourians, there might not be a  state for Rick Perry to govern, which makes his visit even harder to swallow. 

Plenty of other people have commented on what they see as the hypocrisy of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which presumably advocates for Missouri business, welcoming him to our state and even giving him a big forum to encourage Chamber members to move to a state that Missourians helped create.  We won’t go into that very much here.  But Missouri deserves more respect than Governor Perry seemed to give it with his raid.  

To begin with, it was Moses Austin, a Potosi lead entrepreneur, who came up with the idea of establishing an American Colony in Texas, the first incursion of American settlers into Spanish territory.  He got permission to bring 300 families, descendants of which proudly claim membership in “The Old 300” organization.  Moses died before he could lead the settlers but his son, Stephen, carried on his father’s dream.  It was while traveling from New Orleans to San Antonio that he learned Mexico had declared its independence from Spain, which allowed closer ties between Austin and the state of Coahuila y Texas.  He took the first 300 families to his settlement in 1825 and got the government to let him bring in 900 more in a few years. 

Austin sowed the seeds of trouble for the Mexicans when, under the power given him, he created a Constitution of Coahuila y Texas.  He also formed an armed group to protect his colonists, an effort that some consider the start of the Texas Rangers.  

Austin’s Americans grew increasingly restive as citizens of Mexico and when Santa Anna started trying to push the settlers out of Texas, the settlers fought back.  The first shooting happened at Gonzales.  A Republic of Texas was proclaimed and six months after the revolution began, Sam Houston captured Santa Anna and Texas became its own nation.   Austin died  at the end of 1836. 

Governor Perry works in a city named for this Missourian.  One would think, therefore, that  he would have more respect for Missouri. 

Apparently not.  At least he didn’t try to take Moses Austin’s bones back home with him.  Texas tried that in 1938 and we wouldn’t let it happen.  Moses and his wife still sleep in Potosi. 

Then there was Green DeWitt.  Green DeWitt was the Ralls County Sheriff  when he, with Austin’s support, got permission to take 400 respectable, hard-working, Catholic families to Texas.  The capital of his colony would be Gonzales.  DeWitt died in 1835.  The story is told that his widow and daughter made a dress into a banner that read “Come and Take It,” a reference to the cannon the Mexicans gave to the community to fend off Indian attacks.  The flag was waved during the battle of Gonzales that started the Texas revolution. 

The revolution that created a state for Governor Rick to govern began in a town founded by a Missourian.  

More than 30 men from that Missourian’s town marched to San Antonio to help the besieged garrison that had taken refuge in the Mission San Antonio de Valero. Some of those men were Missourians or had Missouri ties. 

One was John Smith, a carpenter and engineer from Hannibal who had gone to Texas to collect a debt and stayed there, deserting his Missouri family.  Some sources say Smith was the last adult to leave the Alamo after the siege began, carrying a message to Houston asking for help.  He later became San Antonio’s first mayor and was a member of the Texas Congress.

Jacob Durst left Missouri in 1830. His name is “Darst” in Texas.  He was one of those who dug out the hidden cannon at Gonzalez and fired a load of shrapnel at Mexican troops. 

George Washington Cottle, a member of a pioneering Lincoln County, Missouri family joined other Cottles who settled in the Gonzales area.  Daniel W. Cloud was a Kentuckian who had come to Missouri, as many Kentuckians did in those days, but found little success as a lawyer here, so he headed to Texas.  Missouri native George Tumlinson was also one of those who went to the Alamo from Gonzales. 

Several others with Missouri ties were inside the walls of the Alamo on that final day including two cousins, Asa and Jacob Walker, relatives of Joseph R. Walker, the first sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri.   And the legendary Jim Bowie lived some of his childhood years in southeast Missouri. 

The “Father of the Santa Fe Trail,” William Becknell, moved to the northeast corner of Texas in 1835, fourteen years after leading Missouri’s first successful trade mission to a foreign country (Santa Fe, then Mexican territory).  One story says former Congressman David Crockett spent some time at his home waiting for associates before going on to San Antonio.  Becknell established a company of mounted volunteers in the summer of  ’36 to protect his region from Mexicans.  After the revolution he became a successful livestock raiser and broker.  When the first United States congressional elections were held in Texas, Becknell was appointed to supervise them.  He died in Texas in 1856. 

Missourians considered Texas such a Missouri-friendly place that our Confederate government sought refuge in Marshall where it established the Confederate capitol of Missouri.  The Confederate commander of the western theatre, E. Kirby Smith, gathered the governors of four Confederate states at Marshall to discuss whether he should disband his army.  Missouri Confederate Governor Thomas C. Reynolds didn’t want to give up although a month had passed since Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia.  But the other three governors decided the cause was lost.  So Smith told United States officials that he had disbanded his army—except for the Missourians.

In June of 1865, Reynolds, Missouri commander Sterling Price, Jo Shelby’s Iron Brigade, and others headed for Mexico, refusing to admit the South had lost the war.  They lowered their banner into the Rio Grande and crossed the border.  Some of the Missourians returned home. Others went to Mexico hoping to take part in another revolution.  But when the revolution collapsed three years later they came back across the river and eventually most came back to Missouri.  

Despite all of the things Missouri has done for Texas, Rick Perry has trotted into Missouri— the parent state of Texas for crying out loud—and has allowed himself—various editorial writers have more or less said– to become a tool of business interests playing political games with a tax increase bill.   

Rick the ingrate, the Governor of Missouri’s prodigal child, Texas.  

And to think Missourians fought and died so he could pull something like this.

tsk, tsk, tsk.