A Missouri Juror Tries To Save Man She Helped Send to Death Row

| Tue Jun. 10, 2014 11:24 AM EDT

Americans are generally supportive of the death penalty, although slightly less now than 20 years ago. But capital juries are especially partial to the death penalty, largely by design: only people who support capital punishment are allowed to serve on them. So Kimberly Turner is an unusual defector. In 1998, the 30-year-old single mom served on a Missouri jury that sentenced John Winfield to death for murdering two women who were friends of his former girlfriend. Winfield is scheduled to be executed on June 18, the seventh execution in the state since November.

Turner, though, doesn't think Winfield should die. She has told his lawyers that while serving on the jury, court officials pressured the jury to continue deliberating, even though at least two jurors wanted to vote for life without parole. According to Turner, the jury was already a bit of a pressure cooker. They had been sequestered for several days, and by Friday night, the jurors wanted to go home. Turner also had been struggling to find care for her daughter while she performed her civic duty. So in the end, she and another juror who'd wanted to spare Winfield's life caved and voted for death. But 16 years later, she still regrets that vote and has been helping Winfield challenge his conviction.

She's not giving media interviews, but Turner gave Winfield's lawyers a written declaration describing her recollections of the jury proceedings. It's a poignant document describing her regrets, but it also provides an unusual window into a process that forces ordinary citizens to decide whether or not a person should be killed.

Turner outlines her concern about the way the case played out, such as the bad defense lawyers who failed to call many witnesses who might have humanized their clients. She faults the prosecutor for playing up racial biases, for instance, writing:

The jury was predominantly white, including me, and Mr. Winfield is black. The prosecutor made me think that Mr. Winfield was a thug. She played up that he drove around St. Louis in a Cadillac with tinted windows. I could not identify with the picture that the prosecutor painted. When we were deliberating as a jury, a lot of people described Mr. Winfield as a thug and that influenced the way that people voted. Ultimately, we deadlocked in deliberations. Another juror and I had voted for life without the possibility of parole. That was my vote. In my heart, that has always been my vote. Despite the fact that Mr. Winfield's defense had not given me a picture of who he was as a person, I still had compassion for the man in front me at the trial. I knew he was someone's son, and I did not want him to be killed.

Turner describes how difficult it can be for jurors to vote their conscience in a capital trial, calling out the role she saw of court officials in trying to pressure the jury towards a unanimous verdict for death. She writes:

We alerted the Court to the fact that we were deadlocked and could not come to a decision. We were then directed to keep deliberating. Even though I had voted for life without parole, when an officer of the Court told me to keep deliberating, I thought that I had to. It was Friday afternoon and the other jurors were tired of being sequestered and wanted to go home. They were pressuring me and the other life vote to change our votes to death. One juror even exclaimed that we should fry him and go home. That comment upset me, it did not seem to take seriously our decision and the life in front of us. I saw that juror years later, and I would not even speak to him because I was still so upset over his comment.

As the afternoon went on, the other jurors wore me down. I had not wanted to keep deliberating, but after the order to continue, I did not know how long I was supposed to keep defending my vote for life. I was worried about my daughter and did not know when I would be able to get home to her. So I changed my vote to death. It is a decision that has haunted me.

Turner has followed the case ever since, and in 2007, came forward with another juror to help Winfield's lawyers by arguing that a bailiff had given the jury an illegal instruction to keep deliberating even though their votes were split—an outcome that would have resulted in a sentence of life without parole, not a mistrial.  She explains her decision in the declaration:

When I discovered that Mr. Winfield had been given an execution date, I was sick to my stomach. This has been very emotional for me. I have always tried to do the right thing. It was hard on me to be a juror as a single mom, but I did my civic duty. I was called to fulfill this duty. I did not ask to be a part of deciding whether a man should live or die. It bothers me that I was not presented with all of the information available about who Mr. Winfield is as a person to aid me in my decision. Nevertheless, I voted for life. I defended my vote for life and was then instructed by the Court to keep deliberating after I had made my decision. Now, I feel that this is my fault. I feel responsible for Mr. Winfield's fate. I struggle with that. If Mr. Winfield is executed, I will have to deal with that forever. I ask that Mr. Winfield's sentence be commuted to life without the possibility of parole.

Unfortunately for Winfield, Turner's testimony and declaration didn't persuade the Missouri Supreme Court, which rejected Winfield's challenge to the jury treatment a few years ago. But Turner is apparently still trying to help him win clemency, or at least clear her conscience the best she can. Her written declaration was signed May 28 of this year, not long after Winfield's most recent execution date was set. In a state that's recently won notoriety for executing several people even though they still had appeals pending in the courts, Turner is likely tilting at windmills. But her activism ought to remind court officials that jurors could be victims in a death penalty case, too.

 

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