Missouri executed Leonard “Rahim” Taylor despite doubts about his guilt

Tricia Red Bushnell Leonard “Rahim” Taylor was being held at a prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri, pending an interview. Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, was calling Taylor to update her on her death penalty case, which was scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. Taylor was in a holding cell, prison official Rojo told Bushnell, but he couldn’t go there now. Just before Cara returned to the official line, Rojo Bushnell heard someone talking in the background and said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. Done.’ And I said, ‘Is it done?’ And she said yes. And I clarified, ‘You mean the execution is done?’ And she said yes.”

Rojo was sitting at a Huddle House diner across the street from Bushnell Prison. He was there all day with Megan Crane, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office, working on Taylor’s case. Rose Bushnell realized that as she waited, the execution was already underway. Taylor was pronounced dead at 6:16 p.m.

Taylor was executed in 2004 for the murders of his girlfriend Angela Roe and her three young children in the St. Louis suburb of Jennings. Taylor has always maintained his innocence. He was nearly 2,000 miles away when the bodies he shared with Rowe were found, shot in the head. Police pegged Taylor as their only suspect, following witnesses to confirm their theory of the crime, ignoring evidence to the contrary. At Taylor’s trial, the prosecution relied on a questionable statement made by Taylor’s brother, Perry—a statement Perry vehemently denied—and on the testimony of a medical examiner who dramatically changed his estimated time of death to implicate Taylor.

Despite lingering questions about Taylor’s guilt, his claim of innocence was never fully investigated or considered by any court. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has ruled himself out of taking advantage of a Missouri law that allows prosecutors to reopen potentially wrongful convictions, saying there is no information “to support a credible claim of innocence” in Taylor’s case. The office maintained its position even as Taylor’s daughter, Deja, flew to St. Louis the day before the execution to share crucial information supporting her father’s alibi, which could confirm that the victims were still alive several days after Taylor left the state.

“They know that people have other ways to assert their rights, but that doesn’t matter to them.”

As Taylor’s execution loomed, attorneys tried to stop it, asking Gov. Mike Parsons to convene a board of inquiry: an independent panel to verify Taylor’s claims of innocence. The governor refused to do so. As it became clear that the death penalty would be carried out, the attorneys learned that the state was denying Taylor’s requests to have a spiritual advisor and two witnesses, Rojo Bushnell and Crane, present at the execution.

After the Missouri Supreme Court and the federal district court in St. Louis declined to intervene, Rojo Bushnell and Crane were working on an appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court. Rojo was calling Bushnell to tell Taylor about the appeal when he was told it was too late.

This is not the first time Missouri has executed a person in the face of a compelling claim of innocence, nor is it the first time the state has executed someone while the case is still pending. “I think it’s something we’ve all been thinking about,” Rojo Bushnell said. “They know that people continue to sue; They know that people have other ways of asserting their rights, but that doesn’t matter to them.”

During his last visit with Taylor on Tuesday morning, Rose Bushnell spoke to him about his love of music. His favorite song, he told her, was “Family Reunion” by The O’Jays. Rojo Bushnell and Crane heard the song when they returned to St. Louis after the execution from Bon Terre. Taylor, a devout Muslim, “accepted his fate that whatever God willed was God’s will,” Rojo Bushnell said. “He was positive until the last time I spoke to him.”

Missourians rallied in support of Taylor across the state from Kansas City to Bonne Terre on Tuesday to repeal the death penalty. “One day the truth will come out, and Raheem Taylor will be vindicated and exonerated posthumously,” said Michelle Smith, co-director of the organization.

“This is an undeniable and irreversible injustice,” Crane said. “But in Raheem’s words, he will ‘live forever in the hearts of family and friends’.”