By Amy Berberyan, Vaiva Utaraite and Kimberly Torres
BONNE TERRE, MO – A man named Leonard Taylor is to be executed here in a state prison Tuesday, Feb. 7 after 6 p.m. unless appeals for a day are successful.
Late last week, the Midwest Innocence Project, the Innocence Project, and Phillips Black issued a report and requested Gov. Mike Parson reevaluate Taylor’s death sentence for the murder of his girlfriend, Angela Rowe, and her three kids in 2004.
The report claims his conviction was purely based on a false confession that was the result of coercion, a changed statement from the medical examiner regarding the time of death, and a defense counsel who failed to fully represent Taylor.
On Nov. 26, 2004, a week before the victims were found, Taylor had flown to California to meet his daughter, whom he had recently found out about. The daughter, her mother, and her aunt all testified that Taylor had called Rowe during the visit and even put his daughter on the phone, “and she briefly spoke to Angela and one of the children.” the report states.
Multiple witnesses stated that they spoke and interacted with the victims, making it “clear that they could not have been killed until the week of Nov. 29, the week after Thanksgiving.”
“All of this evidence was discovered by police before they knew that Taylor had an airtight alibi from November 26 through December 3 (the day the victims were found deceased),” said the groups’ report..
Initially, the medical examiner provided a window of one to three days for the victims’ time of death, noting “an outer limit of up to one week plus a day or two, stating anything further would be ‘highly unlikely.’”
At trial, the ME expanded this window “to two or three weeks before the bodies were found. There was no scientific basis for this change,” said the report, adding Taylor’s defense counsel failed to consult with their own pathologist regarding the change, which made it plausible for Taylor to have committed the murders.
The conviction was solely based on a videotaped confession made by the defendant’s brother, Perry Taylor, who said Taylor called him and confessed to the crime. Perry immediately withdrew the statement and explained it was a false confession he was forced to make because of threats made by the police against him and his mother.
The defense argues the conversation between Taylor and his brother over the telephone was the subject of hearsay, noting “the statements were admissible pursuant to certain exceptions to the hearsay rule or pursuant to the curative admissibility doctrine.”
The defense explained, traditionally, hearsay by itself is not the end-all-be-all of a jury trial. Hearsay is prone to human error, such as forgetfulness or memory loss. This is why hearsay is taken with a grain of salt if no further evidence is given.
Earlier this month the office of prosecuting attorney wrote a letter to the supreme court of Missouri, asking for an extension of Taylor’s execution date.
“In our August 23, 2022 letter we inform the court our office has been in contact with the counsel for Mr. Taylor about his claim for innocence but that we had no basis at the time to support or oppose the court setting and execution date. Since then, our office has investigated the new witness referenced in that letter among other claims,” said the prosecutor.
The letter added, “We received an affidavit from Dr. Jane Turner MD., containing a preliminary opinion about the victim’s time of death. When we reviewed this affidavit our office had completed our independent review of the evidence of the victim’s time of death, along with Mr. Taylor’s related claim of alibi”
The defense asked for the court to “delay” the “execution to allow additional time for Dr. Turner to review the autopsy report, photographs, and related investigation materials.”
Taylor’s brother Perry, the lone accuser who later recanted, was arrested three times in the course of five days before his interrogation and was physically and psychologically abused, said the report by the groups, noting, “Much of this is actually documented in the videotape.”
During the first arrest, they said, “Police found him at a truck stop in Georgia, dragged him out of his truck and beat him. They searched his truck, apparently thinking Taylor might be hiding there.”
When the police detained him the second time in New Jersey and interrogated him, “Perry adamantly maintained that he did not know anything about these murders.” the report said.
On Dec. 8 when Perry was arrested at gunpoint in Jennings, police told him what he needed to say or his mother “might have an accident where she may fall off her balcony or fall out a window if Perry wouldn’t cooperate.” testified Perry.
The police, said Taylor’s supporters, threatened Perry with long-term imprisonment unless he gave answers that connected his brother to the crime. He was charged with hindering prosecution and faced up to seven years in prison, which the officers repeatedly told Perry to consider a threat unless he provided them with answers they liked.
Multiple parts of Perry’s original statement were proven false, maintain the supporting groups.
Perry stated that Taylor called him on Nov. 22 and confessed to the murders, which could not be true “because school records indicate that all three children went to school on that date and the following day,” said the defense.
The groups’ statement also noted Taylor shot Rowe after she cut him with a knife, but photographs of the accused’s body taken at his arrest showed no wounds (and) There were also no traces of Taylor’s blood found at the crime scene.
Perry also stated Taylor said he shot Rowe first in the stomach and then at her head. This is contradictory considering “the autopsy revealed that the only bullet wounds on her body were to the head, her arms, and upper left chest. She was never shot in the stomach,” said the groups.
When Taylor appealed his conviction and death sentence in 2009, the Missouri Supreme Court made it “clear that the alleged confession was paramount to that Court’s conclusion that the evidence of Taylor’s guilt was ‘overwhelming,’” explained the report by Taylor’s supporters.
James Trainum, a former D.C. homicide detective and law enforcement expert, reviewed Perry’s statement and found several red flags and noted that it was “overly coercive.” These aspects concluded that his statement was contaminated by the police, the report reads.
Taylor’s trial counsel, said the groups, did nothing “to investigate or rebut Perry’s statement that Taylor confessed” and his subsequent counsel “also failed to investigate or retain an expert to analyze these interrogations and resulting statement, despite their clear professional and ethical obligations to do so.”
The report made it clear that no account of Taylor’s innocence, including the fact that he was 1,800 miles away when the crime occurred, was presented to a factfinder.
Taylor’s impending execution is an event that would be “an intolerable injustice” (due to the lack of a) “full and fair resolution on the question of his guilt or innocence,” according to all three innocence organizations who requested a Board of Inquiry look into Taylor’s case so that the evidence supporting his innocence could be reviewed for the first time.
The report states that this case should involve the Governor’s help because Taylor has been stuck with “ineffective counsel” at both the state and federal level of his proceedings, who put little to no effort into investigating and presenting his innocence.
Taylor’s post-conviction counsel, for instance, has failed to present evidence concerning his innocence to any court; as a result, there is no public filing related to his innocence. This same counsel did not investigate Taylor’s case until late 2022, and only produced new evidence in January 2023.
This negligence, they said, kept the three innocence organizations involved with the report from learning of Taylor’s claim to innocence until a short amount of time before his execution.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, about one individual from death row is exonerated for every eight inmates executed, and about. 23% of these exonerations were due to “flawed forensics,” an element present in Taylor’s case with regards to the time of death testimony.
All three organizations requested that the Governor grant Taylor a reprieve so that he could have a proper hearing.
“Without a Board of Inquiry,” the report stated, “there is a very real chance that an innocent man may be executed without his case ever receiving a full investigation or presenting his evidence of innocence to any factfinder.”