Leon Taylor, the man who was convicted for shooting and killing gas station attendant Robert Newton during a 1994 robbery, was executed in Bonne Terri, Missouri, early Wednesday morning. Newton was shot by Taylor in front of his 8-year-old stepdaughter in Independence, Miss., on April 14, 1994. Taylor also tried to shoot the girl, but his gun jammed and did not fire. On Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declined granting clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the 56-year-old Taylor’s appeal.
According to court records, the robbery and shooting occurred after Taylor and his half-brother and half-sister bought gas. They drove away, but then decided to return and rob the gas station after having car trouble. Taylor entered the store, drew a gun, and instructed Newton to put $400 in a bag. Newton did so and Taylor’s half-brother, Willie Owens, took the money to the car. Taylor then ordered Newton and the child into a back room of the gas station, where Newton pleaded that Taylor not shoot him in front of the girl. Taylor reportedly shot him in the head and then tried to kill the girl, but was unsuccessful because his gun jammed. After locking the child in the room the three drove away. Taylor was arrested a week after the shooting when police received a tips hotline call.
Assistant Jackson County prosecutor Michael Hunt said the little girl’s testimony was crucial in the death sentence. She testified that Newton pleaded with Taylor not to kill them. The half-sister and half-brother reached plea agreements with prosecutors and testified at the 1995 trial.
Court appeals claimed that the death penalty was unfair. The original jury was deadlocked and the death sentence was issued by the judge. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that only a jury could impose a death sentence. Lawyers for Taylor claimed that after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, a Missouri Supreme Court ruling led the state to commute at least 10 other death sentences that were imposed by a judge, changing them to life in prison. Taylor was the only one whose sentence was not changed.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the execution of Taylor 20 years after the 1994 gas station shooting was the ninth in Missouri this year, and the 33rd in the U.S. This ties 1999 for the most executions in Missouri in a single year.
Taylor was pronounced dead at 12:22 a.m. Wednesday at the state prison in Bonne Terre after receiving a lethal injection. After several problem executions in Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma in which the inmates took extended periods to die, Taylor’s death occurred without complications. Four of his family members were present. In a final statement he apologized to Newton’s family and thanked his own family for their love and support. He apologized for bringing his family to having to witness his execution, and urged them to “stay strong and keep your heads to the sky.”
Newton’s brother, Dennis Smith, spoke to reporters after the execution, saying that the family has missed Newton every one of the 7,500 days since he was shot by Taylor at the Missouri gas station in 1994. He described his brother as generous and a hard worker, with a memorable laugh.
By Beth A. Balen