In the bottom corner of Michael Tisius’ drawing of the Blessed Mother, “AGAPE ARTWORK” is scrawled in small capital letters.
The inscription appears on several of the pieces he drew in the past couple of years while waiting in limbo on Missouri’s death row.
“I learned the word ‘Agape’ means love as an action,” Tisius wrote in an email to the St. Louis Review. “What better way to title my artwork than with a word that literally defines it?”
Tisius was executed by lethal injection on Tuesday, June 6, at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. He was convicted of killing Randolph County jailers Jason Acton and Leon Egley in 2000 during an attempt to free a friend.
Tisius was injected with pentobarbital and was pronounced dead at 6:10 p.m., according to the Associated Press. Tisius was the third person executed in Missouri this year, with another scheduled for Aug. 1.
Tisius’ final appeals, including an argument that a juror in his 2010 sentencing could not read — making the juror ineligible under Missouri law — were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Tisius’ lawyers and others, including apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre on behalf of Pope Francis, asked Gov. Mike Parson to grant clemency to Tisius. On June 5, Gov. Parson said in a statement that the execution would move forward as planned.
During his time in prison, Tisius has developed both his art skills and his faith — sometimes both at once.
“Firstly, I am a Christian who studies the teachings of Jesus. Over the years, my faith has grown stronger as I have studied and understood the teachings more,” he wrote to the Review.
One drawing that is particularly special to him depicts the Blessed Mother holding an infant Jesus, surrounded by white roses. Three crosses are in the distance.
“I created this drawing during a time of internal struggle,” he wrote. “Although Mary and the baby Jesus were the focus, I surrounded them with different elements. The white roses were added to represent purity. The three wooden crosses were added to remind me of the sacrifice Jesus gave.”
The Blessed Mother has “been an important figure over the years in drawing me closer to Jesus,” he wrote. “When I draw pictures of Mary, I find solace, comfort and peace. It makes me feel closer with Jesus.”
He drew another image of Mary, pictured with white roses and heavenly beams streaming down through the clouds, as a gift for Rita Linhardt, a longtime staff member at the Missouri Catholic Conference.
Tisius’ lawyer Larry Komp delivered the drawing to Linhardt before she retired last year. Tisius knew that she had devoted much of her career to efforts to end the death penalty, so “he wanted Larry to give it to me to show his appreciation for everything I had done,” she said. Linhardt hung the drawing on the wall of her office at the Missouri Catholic Conference.
Komp, the supervisor of the capital habeas unit of the Federal Public Defender Office of the Western District of Missouri, has known Tisius for six years.
“Michael’s story is about redemption, making the best of a bad situation. He immediately accepted responsibility and has built the best life he can in the circumstances he finds himself,” Komp said. “His story is about not giving up, and finding the good things about yourself and doing something with them.”
Tisius, now 42, was 19 when he killed Acton and Egley. While serving a 30-day sentence for a misdemeanor theft charge, he was befriended by Roy Vance, a man eight years older who convinced Tisius to return after his release to help Vance escape. In the course of the escape attempt, Tisius shot Acton and Egley.
The clemency application includes a statement from Vance, who is serving a sentence of life in prison. “I manipulated Mike for my own benefit and if it weren’t for me and Tracie (Vance’s girlfriend), Michael wouldn’t have done this,” Vance said. “He was just a kid. This is my fault. It only happened because of me.”
In addition to his more personal religious artwork, Tisius has also painted murals around the prison, including in the Special Needs Unit and the Veterans’ Wing, and has donated artwork to auctions supporting victims of domestic violence.
Tisius’ email to the St. Louis Review was dated June 1, five days before his scheduled execution.
“My faith has taught me that through Jesus I am forgiven and loved,” he wrote. “As my scheduled date becomes closer, I try to lean heavily on that and keep in mind that He has my best interest at heart. At the end of the day all I have is my faith and that is the only thing I can take with me.”
On June 6, Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty will host execution watches across the state where communities will gather in solidarity to oppose the execution of Michael Tisius. In St. Louis, a gathering will be held at 3 p.m. at the St. Louis City Circuit Court at Market and Tucker streets Downtown. A will also be held outside the prison in Bonne Terre, starting at 5 p.m. and continuing through the duration of Tisius’ execution. For more information, visit madpmo.org.
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 serious 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