The attorney for the man Missouri is scheduled to execute next week told Missourinet he is a changed man, but one of the men that prosecuted him remains confident the death sentence is just.
It’s been more than 20 years since Leon Taylor fatally shot Robert Newton, the attendant of an Independence service station that Taylor had just robbed. After killing Newton, Taylor attempted to shoot Taylor’s then-eight-year-old stepdaughter as well, but the gun didn’t fire, and he left her with Newton’s body.
Attorney Elizabeth Unger Carlyle has represented Taylor since 2003. She said he is a “dramatically” different man from the one he was on April 14, 1994.
“He has become a real force for good and a force for God at the Potosi Correctional Center,” said Carlyle.
She said a petition for clemency transmitted this week to the office of Governor Jay Nixon includes statements from people inside and outside the prison about his influence, and letters from pastoral groups and current and former legislators urging the governor to commute his sentence.
The Governor’s office’s policy is to not offer comment on pending applications for clemency, and Nixon has only granted clemency one in his six years as governor.
Carlyle knows the governor’s track record regarding clemency, which includes denying it for men executed since November of last year.
She believes the one time Nixon granted clemency, in the case of Richard Clay who also committed a murder in Missouri in 1994, he based that decision on a number of factors, “including the activities of the person in prison.”
Carlyle knows skepticism is common toward people sentenced to death who claim to find religion and change for the better, but she believes Taylor is legitimate.
“One of the things Leon does is he’s a songwriter and he writes and records his own praise songs,” said Carlyle. “I think if you listen to them you can see that they come from his heart and I think that’s where his heart is.”
Taylor wrote a letter of apology and a poem for Newton’s widow, Astrid Newton Martin. Martin said in the 2012 documentary Potosi: God in Death Row, that she has forgiven Taylor.
“It took me … I think 17, almost 18 years to finally realize I need to forgive and I did,” Martin said in the film. “I can honestly say I forgive him if he really means what he said in the letter.”
“You did some horrible stuff to me and for a long time I could not forgive you,” Martin said of Taylor, “especially knowing you were trying to hurt my little girl.”
Martin’s daughter, now nearly 30, has declined recent requests for media interviews. The film includes a recording of what she had to say in a 1995 radio interview.
“I have never had so many nightmares,” she said then. “The best thing in my life was destroyed. Now I too feel like dying … it’s lonely out here with no dad. It is dumb for the best, sweetest and kindest man and dad to be killed over a lousy $450. I think Leon Taylor should get the death penalty.”
Taylor’s relatives that were with him the night of the murder said he later said of the little girl that he, “should have choked the bitch.”
The attempt Taylor made to kill her is one of the “aggravating factors” Michael Hunt and the rest of the prosecution team presented when it asked for the death penalty.
“Reasons why this is different than any other case,” Hunt told Missourinet in describing aggravating factors. “Essentially what you want to have are … egregious factors why this [case] is different.”
Hunt is still with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office. He said the case stuck with him.
“The one thing you don’t ever forget is that little girl,” he told Missourinet. “It’s just so horrendous to hear her version of standing there, holding her stepfather’s hand as he is shot and killed, as he is pleading for his life, and then after he has been shot in the head, to have her describe how he turns that gun on her and pulls that trigger … that’s a horrendous act and it’s a horrendous act for her to have to relive and tell the jury.”
Hunt said he respects the beliefs of those who, for varying reasons, don’t want to see Taylor executed next week.
“When you start down this path on our side there has to be a comfort level that this is the appropriate punishment, because there’s no way that I could sit there as the prosecutor and ask that jury to sentence him to death unless I was comfortable with it,” Hunt said. “I was then and I am now.”
Taylor has also declined recent interview requests, but he is featured in that documentary. In it, he talked about growing up with an alcoholic mother and having to raise his brothers and sisters.
“The men who were supposed to be my role models, they weren’t. They were women beaters and alcoholics themselves, so that’s basically what I grew up around,” said Taylor.
At the time he reacted to the news that Missouri might soon resume carrying out executions, saying, “I’m not worried about that.”
Taylor continued, “If my number comes up during that time, I’m fine. I’m good. I’m ready.”