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Supreme Court refuses to block execution for jailhouse killings

Rejection of the appeal will leave Michael Tisius to be put to death for jailhouse killings he committed at age 19. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court declined Monday to block the execution of a Missouri man who killed two guards during an attempted 2000 jailbreak. 

Just a week earlier, Micheal Tisius had won temporary relief from U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough based on questions regarding a juror in his case. Tisius’ execution was reset for Tuesday, however, after the Eighth Circuit vacated Bough’s stay. Tisius applied to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution and petitioned for a writ of certiorari, but the justices turned him down on both counts Monday. 

Tisius landed on death row after he became friendly with a fellow inmate in Huntsville, Missouri. Roy Vance was expecting to spend the next 50 years in prison and intent on escaping — indeed, he was only moved to the jail in Huntsville after having slipped the guards at a smaller state facility. Tisius by contrast was only a teenager at the time, having violated probation on a misdemeanor stealing charge. 

Their overlap in Huntsville was brief, but the 19-year-old Tisius worked with Vance and the inmate's girlfriend after his release to execute Vance's escape plan. With the help of the girlfriend, Tracie Bulington, Titus obtained a gun. The pair also took the time to figure out which guards would be on duty at the time of the planned jailbreak to give themselves the best chance at success. 

On June 22, 2000, Tisius and Bulington entered Randolph County jail claiming they were bringing cigarettes for Vance. Deputies Jason Acton and Leon Egley were on duty and unarmed when they arrived. As Tisius struck up a conversation with Acton, Bulington purportedly got cold feet and attempted to leave. Tisius then shot Acton in the head. When Egley tried to intervene, Tisius shot him in the head as well. 

As Tisius and Bulington struggled to find the key that would unlock the jail doors, Egley, still alive, crawled toward Bulington and tried to grab her leg. This led to Tisius shooting the guard several more times in the forehead, cheek and shoulder. 

Tisius and Bulington quickly fled the scene, threw out the gun and crossed state lines into Kansas where they were arrested the next day. Tisius then confessed to the murders. 

A jury convicted Tisius on two counts of first-degree murder. Finding aggravating factors for both murders, the jury recommended the death penalty. 

The verdict was initially affirmed, but the motion court overturned Tisius' death sentence based on evidence that the state played the wrong song when it tried to introduce the music Tisius had listened to prior to the attempted jailbreak. 

After a second jury unanimously recommended the death sentence for both counts, the sentencing court imposed two death sentences. 

All of Tisius’ additional attempts at post-conviction relief failed. 

Tisius filed multiple applications for relief with the Supreme Court. One petition questioned if his death sentence was unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because of his age and developmental status at the time of his crimes. 

“As it did in 1988 and 2005, this Court should now extend the bright line age to 21 for those exempted by the Eighth Amendment from the death penalty,” Laurence Komp, a federal public defender representing Tisius, wrote in his petition

A psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Peterson, who has examined Tisius since 2003 said Tisius experienced delayed maturation of his brain function as a child because of physician abuse and neglect. 

In Roper v. Simmons, the court said executing minors was unconstitutional, citing their developing brains. 

“This decreased moral culpability neuters the two Eighth Amendment justifications for capital punishment: retribution and deterrence,” Komp wrote. “Accordingly, Michael Tisius cannot constitutionally be executed in light of his age at the time of the offense as well as his mental impairments.” 

Missouri’s Attorney General Andrew Bailey urged the Supreme Court to stay out of the fight, claiming the state court ruling stripped the court of jurisdiction in the matter. Bailey also argues nothing has changed since the court’s ruling in Roper that would justify its expansion. 

“As this Court noted in Roper, society has drawn the line between juveniles and adults at 18 years old even though that distinction has long been subject to ‘the objections always raised against categorical rules,” Bailey wrote. “The research available then suggested that ‘[t]he qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.’ Still, this Court established a bright-line rule based on the traditional age of majority.” 

The Supreme Court declined to review these claims. 

Tisius brought a subsequent petition, challenging his death penalty sentence on procedural grounds. That petition was also denied. 

Tisius’ third petition before the court concerns a juror involved in the case. When interviewing one of the jurors who sat for his case, Tisius’ attorneys were informed that the juror could not read or write. The juror said told a county official this and they helped him fill out his juror form. 

These claims led the district court to offer Tisius a temporary stay of execution. While the appeals court vacated the stay, the Supreme Court’s orders did not address this application from Tisius. 

Neither the Missouri attorney general nor attorneys for Tisius responded to requests for comment on the ruling. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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