By JIM SALTER
A man convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing a 17-year-old girl in suburban St. Louis more than two decades ago was executed 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 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.
Strapped to a hospital gurney, Ferguson was animated in the moments before his midnight execution at the state prison in Bonne Terre. To ease the tension, he made funny faces and mouthed words to relatives, who included his two daughters, sitting in the observation room.
As the lethal drug was administered, he took a few deep breaths before becoming still, and his daughters cried as he closed his eyes. The 59-year-old was pronounced dead at 12:11 a.m.
"I'm sorry to have to be the cause that brings you all into this dark business of execution," Ferguson said in his final statement. "I pray for the victim's family to have peace in their hearts one day and lose the anger, hate and need for revenge that has driven them."
Hall's father, who also witnessed the execution along with his son and ex-wife, fought back tears as he described how Ferguson strangled his daughter as he raped her 25 years ago. Hall wondered why it took "way too many years" to put him to death.
"This basically tore two families apart," he said after Ferguson's execution. "Hopefully we can now move forward."
On the night of the murder, Ferguson and a friend, Kenneth Ousley, were at a Shell service station across the street from the Mobil gas station where Hall worked. The teenager was nearing the end of her eight-hour shift when she went outside to check the levels of four fuel tanks.
A witness said Ferguson's Chevrolet Blazer pulled up and a man standing close to Hall had his hand in his pocket. Investigators said Ferguson was carrying a pistol.
About a half-hour later, co-workers went looking for Hall and contacted police when they realized she wasn't home and her purse was still at the station. Some of her clothing was later found in another town.
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 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.
Jim Hall said Wednesday that his family will fight to make sure Ousley is never paroled.
In an attempt to spare Ferguson's life, his attorneys made last-minute court appeals challenging, among other things, the state's refusal to disclose where it gets its execution drugs.
Supporters also said Ferguson was remorseful, became deeply religious in prison, counseled inmates and helped start a prison hospice program. His attorney also said he was an alcoholic who blacked out the night of the murder.
"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."
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. He noted that it took several minutes for Hall to die.
"She gets abducted, abused in an 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.
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 cause pain and suffering for the inmate.
The same drug was used in the state's four previous lethal injections. Like Ferguson, those inmates also showed no outward signs of distress during the execution process.
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.
Although critics have raised concerns about the drug and the secretive ways Missouri obtains and uses it to kill inmates, more executions are likely.
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.
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.