On October 12, 2016, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an execution warrant for Mark Christeson, scheduling his execution for January 31. This is the second time since 2014 that the State of Missouri has set an execution date for Mr. Christeson while attorneys were actively litigating his right to his first and only federal appeals.

Mr. Christeson has never had federal appeals. His prior counsel waived all of them in 2005, when they abandoned him before the filing deadline and then filed his case 117 days late. For many years afterward, these lawyers concealed this failure from him. Mr. Christeson, who has an IQ of 74 and severe cognitive limitations, relied on his attorneys and was easily mislead by them.  It was on these bases, that the United States Supreme Court intervened in Mr. Christeson’s case in 2014, granting him a stay only hours before his execution. The high Court then sent the case back to the lower courts, directing them to replace the unethical attorneys with conflict-free ones.

On remand, the district court complied with the Supreme Court’s order – but in name only. Though the lower court appointed new, conflict-free counsel to represent Mr. Christeson, it refused to grant the funding or resources necessary to begin to adequately investigate and assess his severe cognitive impairments, which the Supreme Court pointed out is the crux of the case now. 

No court has ever evaluated these impairments. Despite the lack of funding, counsel provided the court with dozens of witness statements, family mental health records, and preliminary expert reports establishing Mr. Christeson’s significant impairments, as well as an astounding history of pervasive sexual violence. Family counseling records reflect that from birth, Mark’s father, a diagnosed pedophile, chose to sleep with his infant son rather than his wife. The sexual violence continued at the hands of an older cousin, who was awarded custody of Mark when his mother could no longer care for him. Family members report that he too spent every night in Mark’s bed. When Mark was arrested at the age of 18 and sent to prison, the rape continued there: Mark was purchased by a prisoner on the yard, who then used him for sex or lent him out to others.

Mr. Christeson was especially vulnerable in prison because of his history of sexual trauma, as well as his cognitive disabilities. Mr. Christeon was only 18 years old at the time of the crime and had been in special education all through school. Mr. Christeson’s IQ score of 74 is indicative of intellectual disability and may render his execution unconstitutional. But no court has ever evaluated this evidence 

Without holding a hearing, the court found that the prior lawyers had not abandoned Mr. Christeson and that he was not impaired. Mr. Christeson filed in the appellate court an application  to appeal, arguing that the court’s findings were contrary to the evidence as well as the opinion of the Supreme Court, and that the denial of resources amounted to a continued denial of counsel. Several organizations filed amicus petitions in support: The American Bar Association, represented by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom; a group of former judges, represented by Goldstein & Russell; and three national defense associations: the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and National Association of Public Defenders, represented by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis Missouri.  Each of these organizations argued that the district court’s denial of funding represented a dangerous precedent – for Mr. Christeson as well as other indigent capital defendants – and part of a troubling pattern in certain states around the country undermining the access to justice and the rule of law.

On October 12, while these briefs were pending, the Missouri Supreme Court again set Mr. Christeson’s execution date.  Two months later, on December 13, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals authorized Mr. Christeson to appeal four distinct issues. The court set a briefing schedule that extended six weeks past the Missouri Supreme Court’s execution date. Nine days later, however, the court granted the State’s motion to expedite the schedule, condensing the two-month process into three weeks.

Unfortunately, it appears that the court wants to hurry through the briefing in order to rush Mr. Christeson to execution. The expedited briefing represents yet another way that the Missouri state and federal courts are attempting to short circuit justice and deny process to an indigent, capital defendant.

This is especially disturbing, given allegations that the Attorney General’s Office engaged in direct communications with the Missouri Supreme Court and excluding Mr. Christeson’s attorneys when deciding to order Mr. Christeson’s execution date.  Counsel for Mr. Christeson have asked the Missouri Supreme Court to appoint an independent judge to act as a special master to examine these allegations and order the AG to preserve all emails and other communications with the Missouri Supreme Court. The Attorney General’s Office has yet to deny these allegations made on the information and belief of Mr. Christeson’s attorneys. The move on the part of that office raises grave ethics problems, as it appears that the Attorney General has improperly influenced the federal proceedings. 

Phillips Black’s attorneys, in their capacity as adjunct assistant professors of the Saint Louis University School of Law where they conduct the school’s Death Penalty Clinic, represent Mark Christeson in his pending federal case. On October 28, 2014 the high Court stayed the State of Missouri’s execution of Mr. Christeson pending the determination of his petition for a writ of certiorari. On January 20, 2015 the Court issued a summary reversal in Mr. Christeson's favor.