A man who killed two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff's deputy in a subsequent shootout was put to death Wednesday in what could be Missouri's last execution for some time.
Earl Forrest, 66, died by injection for the December 2002 deaths of Harriett Smith, Michael Wells and Dent County Sheriff's Deputy Joann Barnes. He was pronounced dead at 7:18 p.m. CDT, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Forrest's fate was sealed hours before his punishment when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution and Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon turned down a clemency request.
Court documents showed Forrest had been drinking when he went to Smith's home in the southern Missouri town of Salem and demanded that she fulfill her promise to buy a lawn mower and mobile home for him in exchange for introducing her to a source for methamphetamine. Wells was visiting Smith at the time. An argument ensued, and Forrest shot Wells in the face. He shot Smith six times and took a lockbox full of meth valued at $25,000.
When police converged on Forrest's home, he shot Barnes and Dent County Sheriff Bob Wofford, according to court documents. Forrest was shot in the face in the exchange of gunfire. He then put some meth in his mouth, crawled to the door and yelled, "I surrender. We need help. People down."
Forrest's girlfriend, Angela Gamblin, also was shot in the burst of gunfire. She and Wofford survived, along with Forrest.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster released the following statement after Forrest's execution:
“Earl Forrest callously murdered three people, including a deputy sheriff, over a box of methamphetamine,” Koster said. “Missouri’s law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day. They need to know that we will fight just as hard for justice for them and their families.”
Missouri has been one of the most prolific states for executions in recent years, second only to Texas. With the execution of Forrest, the state has put 19 men to death since November 2013, including six inmates last year. Forrest was the first in 2016.
Missouri's death row population is dwindling. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said juries today are less likely to opt for capital punishment, in part because of greater awareness of how mental illness sometimes factors in violent crime. Just 49 people were sentenced to death nationally last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a possible punishment in 1976. No one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, Dunham said.
"As these executions take place, fewer and fewer people are being sentenced to death, so the death penalty is withering on the other end," Dunham said.
None of the 25 other men on Missouri's death row face imminent execution.
Sixteen have yet to exhaust court appeals and aren't likely to do so anytime soon. Execution is on hold for nine others. Two were declared mentally unfit for execution. Two were granted stays because of medical conditions that could cause painful deaths during lethal injection. Two had sentences set aside by the courts due to trial attorney errors. One inmate was granted a stay while his innocence claim is reviewed. One case was sent back to a lower court to consider an appeal.
And in one unusual case, inmate William Boliek was granted a stay by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1997. The case wasn't resolved before Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash, and a court determined that only Carnahan could overturn the stay. Nixon's office has said Boliek will not be executed.
Executions nationally are on the decline. In 1999, 98 people were executed. That fell to just 28 in 2015 - a 24-year low - and 13 so far in 2016.