Just past midnight last night, the state of Missouri executed its ninth prisoner, Leon Taylor, who was sentenced in 1994 for murdering a gas station attendant in front of his young stepdaughter.
The execution proceeded despite last minute clemency requests, which Taylor’s defenders had hoped would be viewed in new light in the wake of Ferguson, where an unarmed black teenager was shot in August by a white police officer.
In 1994, Taylor, who is black, and two of his half siblings robbed the gas station where Robert Newton was working. At gunpoint, Taylor ordered Newton to put $400 in a bag, before commanding that he go into a back room, along with Newton’s 8-year-old stepdaughter. Ignoring Newton’s pleas, Taylor shot Newton in the head. He attempted to shoot the stepdaughter, too, but the gun jammed and the girl survived. According to the assistant prosecutor, it was the young girl’s testimony that proved “pivotal” in the death sentence.
Taylor’s original trial resulted in a hung jury and a white judge sentenced him to death. His next, all-white jury gave Taylor the death sentence as well.
In 2002, after a Supreme Court ruling that only a jury, and not a judge, can issue capital punishment, Missouri commuted the death sentences of ten inmates, but not Taylor. His lawyers contend that he is being essentially punished “for successfully appealing his first conviction.”
Death penalty opponents and Taylor’s lawyers hoped that the backdrop of Ferguson would convince Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to consider the “racial fairness” of Taylor’s conviction. “Only through a lethal combination of racial bias, legal loopholes and prosecutorial misconduct can an African-American man be sentenced to death first by a single judge, then by an all-white jury, and have that process be considered fair,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The last minute clemency request described Taylor’s remorse, rooted in his newfound “devout” Christianity, and cited also Taylor’s abuse as a child at the hands of a mother who gave him alcohol at the age of 5, which later led to the alcohol and drug addiction he suffered at the time of the robbery.
Taylor's execution was the ninth for Missouri in 2014, putting the state behind only Texas in terms of numbers of executions this year.
An indictment of Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, remains pending, with a renewed, vociferous public reaction widely expected, regardless of the decision.