Missouri is on pace for a record number of executions in 2014, with two more inmates on the verge of getting their execution dates – including one who shot a Blue Springs man to death in front of his young step-daughter at an Independence gas station in 1994.
The Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday issued show-cause orders in the cases of Leon Taylor and Michael Worthington. The orders give attorneys for the two men until April 14 to show why an execution date should not be set.
Missouri executed two men late last year and has already put to death two other convicted killers in the first two months of 2014 – Herbert Smulls in January and Michael Taylor in February.
Jeffrey Ferguson is scheduled to die March 26 for abducting and killing a teenager in St. Charles County in 1989. In addition to Taylor and Worthington, the Supreme Court has issued show cause orders for five other death row inmates, meaning their execution dates could be set soon.
Leon Taylor, 56, has been sentenced to death twice for the murder of Robert Newton, who was 53 when he was shot in the head nearly point blank during a robbery at a Phillips 66 station at 316 N. Missouri 291 in Independence on April 14, 1994.
A key witness at the 1995 trial was Newton’s step-daughter, who was 8 at the time of the killing and was with Newton at the business. She testified that after robbing the business, Taylor forced her and Newton into a back room. She said Newton pleaded with Taylor not to kill them, but he shot Newton with a 9 mm handgun. She said he then turned the gun on her but it didn’t fire.
Taylor’s half-brother and half-sister were his partners in the robbery. Both testified against Taylor in plea agreements. They said that they were waiting for Taylor in the car, and they said he told them the gun jammed when he tried to shoot the girl. They testified that he tried unsuccessfully to get the gun unjammed, saying he needed to go back and kill her.
The defense contended that the gun fired accidentally.
The four women and eight men on the jury convicted Taylor, of Kansas City, but could not come to a unanimous decision on the death penalty, with one juror supporting a life sentence. Circuit Judge William F. Mauer sentenced Taylor to death.
On appeal in 1997, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Taylor’s death sentence, ruling that the assistant prosecutor had improperly urged jurors to use their emotions when deciding the sentence.
At a second sentencing trial in 1999 the jury imposed the death sentence again.
An attorney for Taylor did not return a message from the Associated Press seeking comment.
Missouri’s highest number of executions in a year was nine in 1999. The state executed eight men in 1938 and seven in 2001.
Executions slowed considerably in the mid-2000s as courts weighed lawsuits questioning whether execution drugs could cause pain and suffering for the inmate and amount to constitutionally prohibited cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually cleared the way for lethal injections, but from 2005 to 2013 Missouri executed just two men.
The delay didn’t slow other court appeals, and many of the 42 men on Missouri’s death row have exhausted their options.
“There are several guys who are in that situation,” said Kent Gipson, the Kansas City attorney for Worthington. “There are 15 to 20 guys who have exhausted their appeals in the last few years.”
Worthington, 43, raped, robbed and killed his neighbor, Melinda Griffin, in Lake St. Louis, in 1995. He claimed the crime occurred when he blacked out after a four-day binge on alcohol and cocaine.