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Missouri Executes Leon Taylor, 9th Inmate This Year

Early Wednesday morning, Missouri executed its 9th man this year.

In 1994, Leon Taylor killed 53-year-old Robert Newton, a clerk, as part of a gas station robbery.  Taylor then pointed the gun at Newton's 8-year-old daughter, who had just seen her stepfather killed, but the gun didn't fire.

In denying clemency, Nixon wrote:

Robert Newton was murdered in cold blood, even after he handed over money during a robbery of the gas station he managed. If Leon Taylor’s gun had not jammed, Taylor also would have murdered Newton’s eight-year-old stepdaughter as well. There is no question of guilt in this murder, and my denial of clemency upholds the court’s decision to impose a sentence of death.

After his execution, Attorney General Chris Koster said in a statement that "those who knew and loved Robert Newton waited two decades for the imposition of justice that finally came early this morning.”

Taylor had two trials for his crime. In the first trial, he was found guilty, but the jury didn't agree on if he should be put to death. The jury's vote was 11-1. The judge then unilaterally imposed the death sentence, a practice that the courts have now outlawed.

Due to prosecutor misconduct in the first trial, Taylor received a second trial. Taylor is black, and his victim was white. The first jury, the jury that could not agree on a death sentence, had four black jurors on it. The second jury had no black jurors and decided that Taylor should be put to death.

"In complete candor, this court finds it morally and intellectually troublesome the concept that a black defendant in Jackson County, Missouri, could be sentenced to death upon the recommendation of an all-white jury," Judge Charles Atwell said before sentencing.

Taylor’s attorney, Elizabeth Carlyle, says the black jurors were struck for racial reasons.

“It strikes me as a major coincidence that the way [the prosecutor] exercised his pre-emptory challenges," Carlyle said. "So yeah, I’m inclined to think that’s what he meant to do.”

The Missouri Supreme Court allowed the death sentence to stand, finding that there were race-neutral reasons to strike potential black jurors from the pool.

Taylor's clemency petition asked Nixon to acknowledge how the condemned man has changed behind bars. It quoted Sam Duckworth, a volunteer at Potosi who is a retired St. Louis Police officer.

"I have seen this gentleman acknowledge past behaviors, and work hard to bring about the proper rectification in his life," Duckworth said. "I believe he has been set free from the struggles of his past. Today Leon is not the man he used to be."

Taylor's Christianity was one of the subjects of a recent documentary.

Taylor had asked Nixon to limit his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The governor, a Democrat, has denied clemency numerous times and has granted it only once.

The Kansas City Star reported that Dennis Smith, Newton's brother, believed that the execution should proceed: “(Taylor's) been blessed with 20 years he shouldn’t have had; it burns a hole in my gut.”

Smith told the Star that his brother — whom he called “a super nice guy” — was "a retired auto worker who had taken the gas station job so he could save money to move to southern Missouri and open a bait shop."

Taylor's lawyers also asked the courts to halt the execution over concerns over the drugs Missouri has been using. A St. Louis Public Radio investigation in September revealed the state had secretly been injecting a controversial execution drug, midazolam, in spite of sworn assurances that it would not.

Missouri says the drug will now be optional for the inmate.

So far, the courts have not been willing to halt executions based on those concerns. But three federal judges said the information we revealed should raise alarm.

"In what appears to be an acknowledgment that mandated injection of dangerous levels of midazolam shortly before the execution likely violates the inmate's constitutional rights, Missouri made midazolam optional during its last execution," the judges wrote.

"The horrifying results from executions in other states are now common knowledge, and I do not believe it is necessary to wait until such results occur in Missouri before a stay is warranted."

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the execution over concerns of the execution drug, although four justices disagreed. It takes five justices to grant a stay.

According to the Department of Corrections, the execution began at 12:14 and Taylor was pronounced dead at 12:22.

With Missouri's 9th execution in 2014, the state has tied its 1999 record for the number of executions in one year. And with another execution scheduled for December, Missouri is likely to surpass 1999's record.

Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter@csmcdaniel