In this country the inability to say yes to life is part of our dilemma, which could become a tragic one. It is part of the dilemma of being what is known as an American.
– James Baldwin, “The White Problem”
Shortly after 6 PM on the evening of February 7, Leonard “Raheem” Taylor was executed by the state of Missouri for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit: the 2004 murder of Angela Rowe and her three children in suburban St. Louis. Rowe had been Taylor’s girlfriend. She and her children shot and killed in the house she shared with Taylor. In the 19 years since the murders, Taylor never wavered in asserting his innocence and much of the evidence in the case backed him up and always has.
When the bodies were discovered on December 3, 2004, Taylor was 2,000 miles away in Oakland, visiting his daughter Deja. He’d been in California for more than a week and there was plenty of evidence to prove it, starting with security footage at the St. Louis airport showing Taylor on his way to catch his November 26th flight to Ontario, California on Southwest Airlines. Taylor’s daughter and her mother, Mia Perry, both said that Taylor called Angela Rowe from Oakland and put Deja on the phone to talk with Rowe’s children.
But none of this mattered to the cops, who had settled on Taylor as their only suspect. To the police, Taylor’s alibi was manufactured. They viewed it as evidence of his guilt, not innocence. A legal Catch-22: if he were really innocent, why would he need an alibi? The problem for the cops was they had no gun, no evidence and no motive. That’s when they went to work on Taylor’s brother, Perry.
Perry Taylor was a truck driver, who used Rowe and Taylor’s house as a kind of staging area for his life on the road. He stored his things there and sometimes slept in his truck in the driveway. He was in Atlanta when the bodies were discovered. Over the next couple of weeks, Perry was followed, harassed, threatened, and arrested by the Missouri cops. He was interrogated for five hours, during which Perry later said he was coerced into giving a statement implicating his brother, a statement he fully recanted before the trial.
According to Perry, “Some detective right off the bat told me, ‘OK, before we get to the station, here’s what you’re going to say.” As part of the coercion, Perry claimed the cops made threats against his disabled mother and ransacked her apartment. “That’s the kind of shit that makes you hate law enforcement,” Perry later said in a deposition.
The other key witness for the state was Philip Burch, the medical examiner. In his initial report and pre-trail deposition, Burch concluded that the murders took place no more than a week before the bodies were found. This assessment was fatal to the state’s case, because Taylor could prove he was in California during that entire week. Then at trial, Burch suddenly changed his theory to fit the state’s case, testifying that because the air conditioner was left on Rowe and her children could have been killed three weeks before the bodies were discovered.
Still the case strained credulity. For this theory to hold, the prosecutors had to argue that Taylor was so depraved that he stayed in the house with the bodies of his murdered girlfriend and three kids for several days. But that’s exactly what they argued and Taylor’s legal team, ambushed by the dramatically changed testimony of the medical examiner, put up a weak defense. Taylor was found guilty and sentenced to death. (For an in-depth account of this disturbing case see the reporting of Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith for The Intercept.)
In the ensuing years, more evidence supporting Taylor’s alibi and discrediting the police investigation has emerged. But none of his claims of innocence have ever been put to a legal test. Taylor’s supporters had pinned their hopes on the reform-minded Prosecuting Attorney for St. Louis County Wesley Bell, But Bell declined to invoke a Missouri law permitting prosecutors to reopen possible wrongful convictions, perhaps because of the brutality of the murders and Taylor’s criminal record. But should that really matter?
As Taylor’s execution date neared, Missouri’s Governor Mike Pearson, who has campaigned on accelerating the pace of executions in the state, turned down a request from Taylor’s lawyers for a Board of Inquiry investigation of the evidence of Taylor’s innocence. Pearson curtly dismissed the plea as “self-serving.” After the governor also denied Taylor’s clemency request, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected last appeal and the US Supreme Court refused to issue a stay of execution. In a final indignity, Missouri’s new Attorney General, Andrew Bailey, spurned Taylor’s entreaty to have his spiritual advisor present during the execution.
What is the rush to execute? Where’s the risk in hearing every bit of exculpatory evidence? What are we killing in the name of? Why must the cruelty be torqued up to the very last breath?
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