As Missouri prepares to execute its third person in less than three months, the bishops of the Missouri Catholic Conference have asked Gov. Mike Parson for clemency for Leonard Taylor.
Taylor is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Feb. 7 at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. Taylor was convicted of first-degree murder for the 2004 shooting deaths of Angela Rowe and her three children, Alexus Conley, AcQreva Conley and Tyrese Conley, in Jennings.
The letter to Gov. Parson from the bishops, other religious leaders and civic organizations asks the governor to reduce Taylor’s death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“The deaths of Miss Rowe and her children were a tragic waste of life, and our hearts and prayers are with their family at this difficult time. Sadly, no punishment will restore them to their loved ones,” the letter said. “Some may argue society needs the death penalty to protect life; we strongly believe, however, that society can adequately protect human life without capital punishment.”
Missouri most recently executed Amber (Scott) McLaughlin on Jan. 3, Kevin Johnson on Nov. 29 and Carman Deck on May 3. From 2016-21, Missouri executed no more than one person per year.
The Church teaches that capital punishment is inadmissible in all cases because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.
“Looking beyond this particular case, as religious and civic leaders we are also concerned that the use of the death penalty promotes revenge as a principle of criminal justice,” the letter said. “As imperfect human beings, the grace of God is not something we receive because we deserve it; rather, it is something He gives to us freely as an act of mercy.”
Taylor has maintained that he is innocent of the killings, and his attorneys have argued that he could not have committed the murders because he was in California at the time they happened, laying out evidence that “has come to light during various stages of the trial and post-conviction process” in an application for executive clemency. Taylor is also serving a 100-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole for an unrelated rape conviction.
The Missouri Catholic Conference continues to submit letters asking for clemency no matter how unlikely that outcome seems, because the Church has a duty to stand for the dignity of all lives, said Jamie Morris, executive director of the conference.
“We typically don’t get our wish on these clemency applications,” Morris said. “But, regardless of whether it was an issue of potentially an innocent man being put to death, or even if someone is completely guilty, our request stays the same: that each life is valuable, each person is made in the image and likeness of God. And so we seek mercy, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the result we think we’re going to receive.”
Two bills seeking to abolish the death penalty in Missouri have been filed in the Missouri General Assembly in 2023. Two similar bills were filed during the 2022 session — one by a Republican and one by a Democrat — but neither made it out of committee.
While Missouri has made progress on other pro-life issues, such as abortion, gathering opposition to the death penalty has been more difficult, Morris said.
Working toward abolishing the death penalty in Missouri is “going to continue to be a long, drawn-out process,” Morris said. “As with abortion — or anything else — it’s going to have to be a matter of changing hearts and minds. And then, I think the legislation will follow.”
“The only way we’re going to get change is continued prayers, continued advocacy and continued education, shining a light on these,” he said.
>> Church teaching on the death penalty (updated 2018)
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serioius crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267
>> The Missouri Catholic Conference
The Missouri Catholic Conference is the public policy agency of the Catholic Church in Missouri. It includes Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, Bishop Mark S. Rivituso, and the bishops of Jefferson City, Kansas City-St. Joseph and Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
To read about the conference’s 2023 public policy priorities and track related bills, visit https://mocatholic.org/take-action/mcc-positions-and-progress-report#tab—2
What can I do to help end the death penalty in Missouri?
1. Pray. Both personal and communal liturgical prayer are sources of spiritual strength for living out the pro-life commitment to which the Gospel calls us. Our prayer is often a source of strength for others as well, particularly as we pray for those to be executed, their families, the victims and the victims’ families.
2. Sign clemency petitions for those facing imminent execution. Clemency petitions can be found on the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty website: madpmo.org/clemencycampaigns
3. Contact your state senator and representative and ask them to abolish the death penalty in Missouri. Find information about senators and representatives here: house.mo.gov/legislatorlookup.aspx
4. Support Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic effort to end the death penalty: madpmo.org and catholicsmobilizing.org.
5. Join the archdiocesan Office of Peace & Justice to participate in a prayer vigil outside the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre during an execution, including Leonard Taylor’s execution on Feb. 7. For more information, contact Marie Kenyon at (314) 792-7062 or [email protected].