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Supreme Court rejects death penalty relief for Missouri man claiming innocence

With less than two hours until his scheduled execution, a Missouri man lost his final chance to avoid paying for murders he maintains he didn’t commit.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Despite his claims of innocence, the Supreme Court refused on Tuesday to stop the execution of a Missouri man for the 2004 murder of his girlfriend and her three children. 

The application — submitted to Justice Brett Kavanaugh on Monday night — was rejected by the full court without any noted dissents. The court did not provide an explanation for its ruling in the case of Leonard Taylor, 58, who is set to be executed Tuesday night.

Taylor lived with his girlfriend, Angela Rowe, and her three children in 2004 when Rowe and her children were shot and killed in their home. Taylor claims he had an alibi at the time of the murders, however, uncertainty about the precise time of their death created complications for Taylor’s defense. 

When investigators arrived at Rowe’s home after the bodies were found on Dec. 4, 2004, they noted that the bodies had rigor mortis — the stiffening of joints that can provide clues into the time of death. The medical examiner, Dr. Phillip Burch, testified in his pre-trial deposition that the time of death was about two days before the bodies were discovered. The police concluded that Rowe and her children were not killed until the week of Nov. 29. 

Taylor's brother, Perry, became the focus of the murder investigation. Perry was detained, interrogated, and eventually arrested for hindering prosecution until police finally got him to place the blame on his brother for the murders. He told police that Leonard confessed to the murders, and then the police then released Perry. However, Perry would later recant these statements in his pre-trial deposition and testimony at Leonard’s trial. He claims police threatened him and his mother unless he provided details about the murders. 

Perry’s statements were the only direct evidence the prosecution presented alleging Leonard committed the murders. Other evidence presented by the prosecution included Rowe’s phone records. Prosecutors tried to argue Taylor didn't call Rowe after he left town and that showed he knew she was already dead. Witness testimony would later undermine this evidence.

During his trial, Taylor’s defense team was blindsided by new testimony from the medical examiner about the timing of Rowe and her children’s deaths. Burch changed his original statement that Rowe and her children were killed two to three days before they were found, and instead said they have been killed up to two to three weeks earlier. The defense argued this was impossible considering the rigor mortis in the bodies and the children’s school records that showed they were in school during that time. 

The defense relied on Burch’s pre-trial testimony to form Taylor’s defense, explaining his innocence with an alibi at the time of the murders. However, since they were not aware of the new testimony concerning the time of the murders, his defense team did not have time to provide experts to contradict the testimony. The defense claims Burch’s change in opinion was due to a pre-trial meeting with prosecutors. At trial, Burch confirmed this meeting occurred but could not recall if prosecutors informed him of Taylor’s alibi. 

After leaving Rowe’s house, Taylor used an alias and obtained forged identification documents. The prosecution argued this was evidence of his guilt in the murders, but the defense claimed he was on the run because of a drug deal gone bad. 

Taylor claims his alibi is corroborated by new evidence that emerged after his trial. He says he flew to California on the weekend after Thanksgiving — when the alleged murders occurred — to meet a long-lost daughter, Deja Taylor. His daughter signed a sworn declaration of this visit and claims while Taylor was there he allowed her to talk to Rowe and one of the children on the phone. The visit and phone calls were also corroborated by Deja’s mother and her sister. 

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A jury convicted Taylor on four counts of first-degree murder and four counts of armed criminal action in 2008. He was sentenced to death for each murder count and consecutive life sentences for his armed criminal action counts. 

Taylor appealed but the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentences in 2009. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up his case the next year. Taylor was denied at every avenue of relief he tried and the Missouri Supreme Court set his execution for Feb. 7. 

In 2021, Missouri passed a new law that gives attorneys the right to file a motion in the trial court allowing wrongfully convicted prisoners to obtain a hearing on their innocence. Taylor submitted an application for a hearing under the law. Wesley Bell, an attorney at the St. Louis County Prosecutors Office, issued a press release on Jan. 31 arguing there was not currently sufficient grounds to trigger relief for Taylor under the law. However, Bell said he would support the state justices withdrawing Taylor’s execution warrant to give the office more time to investigate. The Missouri Supreme Court declined a motion to halt the execution. 

Taylor made a final attempt to plead his innocence, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block his execution and take up his case. His attorneys — Kent Gipson with the law office of Kent Gipson and Kevin Schriener with Law & Schriner — claim the state high court vialed his Eighth Amendment rights when it declined to review his sentence with new evidence exonerating him. 

“The facts of this case present this Court with an ideal opportunity to resolve the unanswered questions and confusion spawned by this Court’s decision in Herrera v. Collins regarding whether the due process and the cruel and unusual punishment clauses of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the incarceration and execution of an innocent prisoner,” the attorneys wrote. 

Taylor argues that the court’s precedents and the 14th Amendment make it unconstitutional to incarcerate and execute an innocent prisoner. 

“Both the Herrera decision itself and subsequent decisions clearly indicate that strong procedural and substantive due process arguments can be made that the continued incarceration and execution of an innocent prisoner would violate both procedural and substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment,” Gipson and Schriener wrote. “Although the majority of the court in Herrera declined to find that substantive due process would be violated by the execution of an innocent prisoner, at least six members of the court did agree that a truly persuasive case of actual innocence would render a conviction unconstitutional.” 

The state says Taylor’s claims of innocence present nothing new and nothing that could raise doubts about the jury’s verdict. Missouri also discourages the court from interfering in the case by claiming it would violate the principles of federalism. 

“Taylor’s petition and request for a stay fail to properly invoke this Court’s jurisdiction because the record below demonstrates that the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision is necessarily and inextricably bound up with questions of state law and state court procedure,” Michael Spillane, assistant attorney general for Missouri, wrote in the state’s brief. “This Court should deny Taylor’s petition under the ‘well-established principle of federalism’ that state-court decisions resting on state law principles are ‘immune from review in the federal courts.’” 

Spillane argues that Taylor’s claims are not an excuse for relief unless they present a constitutional violation. 

“Given the panoply of constitutional rights that apply in criminal trials, the jury’s verdict in Taylor’s case is the most reliable determination of his guilt, and the Constitution provides no basis for this Court to supplant the jury’s verdict based on Taylor’s last-minute allegations of innocence,” the brief states.

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal, Regional

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