Recent executions highlight racial disparity in Missouri

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INDEPENDENCE - The journey to the execution chamber for Leon Taylor started April 14, 1994 when he shot and killed 53-year-old Robert Newton in a robbery at an Independence gas station.

Prosecutors said Taylor, who is African American, shot Newton, who is white, and then turned the gun on Newton's 8-year-old stepdaughter and pulled the trigger.

The gun jammed.

Taylor then ran off with $400 he stole from the store. Police arrested Taylor a week later and the legal proceedings commenced for years later.

Two juries found Taylor guilty of first-degree murder, but the Missouri Supreme Court ruled an improper argument in the first trial made the original death sentence issued by a judge invalid.

The second jury which heard Taylor's sentencing was all white. That jury sentenced him to death. Correctional officers executed Taylor for Newton's murder in the early morning hours November 19, 2014.

His execution by lethal injection marked the ninth overall in 2014 and he was the fifth African-American inmate executed in 2014.

Of the 80 inmates executed in the state since 1979, 33 were black, which is more than 41 percent. Missouri's estimated total population of black citizens is just less than 12 percent according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dan Miller served under then Jackson County Prosecutor Claire McCaskill in 1994 and helped prosecute the case against Taylor. Miller said the prosecution does not look for certain jurors based on race.

"It's never designed by the prosecution, contrary to popular opinion, to get a certain race-based jury," Miller said.

Taylor's lawyer, Elizabeth Carlyle disagrees.

"One of the things that put Leon Taylor at much higher risk for the death penalty sentence is the fact he was African-American and his victim was white," Carlyle said. "The next thing that put him at high risk for a death sentence was the fact that he had an all-white jury."

Missouri NAACP president and Columbia resident Mary Ratliff said the judicial system does not equally provide enough voices for black people in the courtroom.

"I don't believe there are enough black people on the jury, I believe that they are stricken and are not allowed to serve," Ratliff said.

Miller said black jurors in the Taylor case did not want to sit on the jury.

"The reason it was all-white was because all the African-American jurors got themselves struck off the jury," Miller said. "You have to struggle to get African Americans on a jury."

Despite appeals from Carlyle about race and testimony from other prisoners about Taylor being a changed man, Governor Nixon denied the appeals and allowed the execution to continue as planned.

Robert Newton's family read a statement after the execution, which stated:

"Leon Taylor did more than just rob a store, he robbed our family, my brother, forever. No more is he watching his children, Brenda or Sarah, nor did he get to see his grandchildren."

The family also called Taylor a "coward" in its statement and maintained support for the use of the death penalty in the case.