Shrouded in darkness. No talking. What witnesses saw at Leonard Taylor’s execution
Leonard “Raheem” Taylor laid with his eyes shut in an empty room surrounded by windows on all four sides. A white sheet covered his body up to his shoulders.
More than two dozen people watched him intently from behind the glass windows at a prison in eastern Missouri. His feet flinched, briefly. His chest rose and fell heavily a few times.
And then he was still.
Taylor was the third person put to death by the state of Missouri in 10 weeks.
The 58 year old had maintained he was innocent in the quadruple murder of Angela Rowe and her three young children, who were found shot in 2004 in Jennings, near St. Louis. He was handed down a death sentence at the end of a 2008 trial.
Several appeals failed.
At 11 a.m. Tuesday, he was served a last meal: a seafood platter, cheeseburger, french fries, cheesecake and vanilla ice cream, according to corrections officials.
He composed a final statement, which read in part: Death is not your enemy, it is your destiny. Look forward to meeting it. Peace!
Around 4:30 p.m., witnesses arrived at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, pulling out their IDs over and over at the security check points.
One group was led outside. Prisoners who were likely aware of the impending execution pounded on their cell windows.
The group entered another building and settled into a cramped waiting room where a clock ticked audibly.
A platter with Welch’s fruit snacks and a table with magazines and a deck of cards appeared mostly untouched. Outside a green door with a window, the sky grew darker, obscuring the barbed wire fences where beyond, 58 protesters gathered opposing the execution. Four showed up in support of it.
The witnesses sat for more than an hour, some chatting about the upcoming Chiefs game and the recent Chinese spy balloon debacle. Others remained silent, glancing up at the black-rimmed clock as the minutes passed.
Around 5:30 p.m., Missouri Department of Corrections director Anne Precythe and another official entered the room. During a short briefing, Precythe thanked the witnesses for volunteering to be present and gave an overview of what would happen.
Precythe left while the other official remained. He sat down, bowing his head, a grim expression etched across his face.
At 5:52 p.m., the corrections department was notified all petitions had been denied and the execution sequence could begin, DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.
Witnesses were escorted into the viewing areas, where two rows of plastic chairs were set up. Nine people related to the victims were present, but kept in a separate viewing room.
Around this time, Taylor’s attorneys were preparing to file an appeal requesting his spiritual advisor Anthony Shahid be with him in the execution chamber. A couple weeks ago, Taylor had not wanted any witnesses, but he changed his mind over the weekend. When the warden told them it was too late to add witnesses, Taylor’s attorneys filed a case with the Missouri Supreme Court. It had been denied earlier Tuesday. They wanted to take their argument to federal court.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states must accommodate the wishes of condemned prisoners who want to have a religious figure pray aloud and touch them during executions. Two of Taylor’s attorneys had also been denied attendance, though they were all approved visitors to the prison.
At 6:05 p.m., the Missouri Attorney General’s office told the corrections department there were no legal impediments. Parson’s office was asked if there were any reasons not to proceed.
“The answer was to proceed,” Pojmann said.
The viewing rooms were shrouded in darkness. No talking was allowed. The only sounds were a whirring vent and a swoosh as two guards opened the bulky curtains.
Taylor was alone.
A bright yellow light emanated from the bare room where an IV line appeared to run from the wall and up underneath the sheet.
Five grams of pentobarbital were facelessly administered. No one on the execution team was seen by the witnesses.
Several minutes later, the curtains were closed and an exam was to take place. The guards then reopened the curtains.
Taylor was pronounced dead at 6:16 p.m.
After, Gerjuan Rowe, Angela Rowe’s older sister, told reporters she “got a little bit of peace.”
“I’m OK, but I’m not,” she said. “But I know justice was served. And it’s kinda hard trying to move forward, but I think ill be able to do it.”
She said she still misses her sister and her nieces and nephew, especially on birthdays and holidays.
“I always wonder what they would be like,” she said of the kids.
On Wednesday, Taylor’s attorneys called for an investigation, alleging the execution went forward even though state officials were aware there was a pending appeal asking for Shahid to be with Taylor when he died.
They said the execution itself was “a constitutionally intolerable event.”
Taylor was admittedly a career criminal and a self-proclaimed “hustler,” who at 22 discovered he had a knack for selling drugs.
By 2004, he was a well-established drug trafficker who had already done time. He often traveled to various parts of the country to pursue criminal activities.
His flight on Nov. 26, 2004, from Missouri to California served a different purpose — Taylor was going to see his 13-year-old daughter who he had not met before, he said during an interview last month.
Taylor maintained he was in California when Rowe and her children, Alexus Conley, 10, AcQreya Conley, 6, and Tyrese Conley, 5, were shot.
Prosecutors saw it differently. They contended he was fleeing after killing them either late on Nov. 23 or early Nov. 24.
Their bodies were found on Dec. 3, 2004. The autopsies initially indicated the homicides had taken place two to three days before the bodies were discovered.
During the trial, medical examiner Phillip Burch said the temperature in the house had been in the 50s and the murders could have taken place two to three weeks before the bodies were discovered — when Taylor would still have been in town.
Several relatives of the victims say Taylor was guilty. On Monday, the prosecutor’s office said, “We believe the jury got the verdict right.” Gov. Mike Parson agreed, calling Taylor’s innocence claims “self-serving.”
Taylor’s attorneys had attempted to cast doubt on the state’s findings and in particular, the timing of the homicides. During Taylor’s California visit with his daughter Deja Taylor, he had called Rowe. The girl had spoken to Rowe and one of her daughters. Forensic pathologist Jane Turner said there was evidence of rigor mortis when the victims were discovered. That would not last more than a week after death even with the cold temperature in the house, according to Turner.
Taylor’s attorneys also pointed to another case handled by Burch where his findings were wrong and the conviction was overturned.
The evidence was not enough to sway Parson or the courts.
Missouri is one of five states with executions scheduled this year. Seventeen people remain on death row in Missouri.