BONNE TERRE, Mo. – A death-row inmate convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a 17-year-old girl in suburban St. Louis was executed early Wednesday in Missouri, marking the state's fifth execution in as many months.
Jeffrey Ferguson abducted Kelli Hall as she finished her shift at a Mobil gas station in St. Charles on Feb. 9, 1989. Her naked, frozen body was found 13 days later on a St. Louis County farm, and investigators determined she had been raped and strangled.
Ferguson, 59, was pronounced dead shortly after midnight at the state prison in Bonne Terre.
In an attempt to spare his life, Ferguson's attorneys made last-minute court appeals challenging, among other things, the state's refusal to disclose where it gets its execution drugs. Supporters said Ferguson, who expressed remorse for the crime, became deeply religious in prison, counseled inmates and helped start a prison hospice program.
"Society doesn't gain anything by his execution," Rita Linhardt of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said Tuesday. "He's not the same man he was 24 years ago."
His attorney also said he was an alcoholic who blacked out the night of the murder.
But St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said Ferguson's good deeds in prison didn't make up for the senseless killing of an innocent teenager. Calling the crime "unspeakable," he noted that it took several minutes for Hall to die.
"She gets abducted, abused in unspeakable manner by this guy and then slowly murdered and dumped in a field like a bag of garbage," McCulloch said.
And the courts appeared to agree: the U.S. Supreme Court, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the governor all refused to halt the execution.
"Kelli Hall was only 17 when she was abducted from her workplace, raped and brutally murdered," Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Tuesday. "Her life, so full of promise, was brutally taken from her and her family."
"The jury that convicted Jeffrey Ferguson of Kelli's murder found that the aggravating circumstances for this crime warranted the death penalty," Nixon said in denying Ferguson's clemency request. "My decision today upholds that appropriate sentence."
Missouri switched to a one-drug execution method late last year. The state obtains the drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy that it refuses to name.
Ferguson's attorney, Jennifer Herndon, had argued that the state's secretive process prohibited the public from knowing exactly how the drug was made and whether it could, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, cause pain and suffering for the inmate.
The same drug also was used in the state's four previous lethal injections, and the inmates showed no outward signs of distress during the execution process.
On the night of the murder, Ferguson and a friend, Kenneth Ousley, were at a Shell service station in St. Charles across the street from the Mobil station where Hall worked.
Hall was nearing the end of her eight-hour work shift when she went outside to check the levels of four fuel tanks. A witness said Ferguson's Chevrolet Blazer pulled up. The witness saw a man standing close to Hall with his hand in his pocket. Investigators said Ferguson was carrying a pistol.
About a half-hour later, co-workers went looking for Hall. When they found out she was not home and her purse was still at the station, they contacted police. Some of her clothing was later found by a city worker in the St. Louis County town of Chesterfield.
Nearly two weeks later, on Feb. 22, 1989, Warren Stemme was approaching a machine shed on his farm in Maryland Heights, another St. Louis suburb, when he found Hall's frozen body, naked except for socks.
An acquaintance suspicious about Ferguson led police to him, and he was convicted of first-degree murder. Ousley pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1993; he is serving a life term but is eligible for parole.
Missouri executed just two men between 2005 and November. But after the state switched from a three-drug execution method to a single-drug protocol last year, executions resumed. All five executions since November have used pentobarbital.
Although critics have raised concerns about the drug and the secretive ways Missouri obtains and uses it to kill inmates, more executions are likely. On Friday, the Missouri Supreme Court set an April 23 execution date for William Rousan, who killed a St. Francois County couple, both in their 60s, in 1993.
Experts say as many as 20 of Missouri's 41 death row inmates have exhausted appeals and could also face execution dates soon, perhaps making 2014 the most prolific year ever for executions in the state. Missouri executed nine men in 1999, the most-ever in a single calendar year.