Missouri is pushing to execute a man on Tuesday despite pleas from legal, human rights and religious groups to spare his life.
The state is currently fighting in court to kill Michael Tisius as punishment for killing two jail guards when he was 19 years old, during a botched plot to free his former cellmate. He is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, although his request for a stay is still pending before the Supreme Court.
As Tisius waits for the courts to determine his fate, an international array of groups, including the American Bar Association, the NAACP — and even representatives from the European Union and the Vatican — have urged Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) to grant him clemency. Six jurors, including two alternates, have also stated they would either support or not object to Parson commuting Tisius’ sentence to life in prison.
Parson said on Monday that he would not use his clemency power to stop the execution, claiming that Tisius “received fair and careful review at each step in the judicial process.”
Unlike some of the other groups calling for mercy, the American Bar Association does not take a position on the death penalty. Rather, “it has a longstanding position that states should administer the death penalty only when performed in accordance with the constitutional principles of fairness and proportionality that limit the death penalty to the ‘worst of the worst’ offenders,” ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross wrote in a letter to Parson.
The letter cited Tisius’ young age and “neurological deficits” at the time of the crime, as well as the low flat fee of $10,000 paid to each of the two lawyers who represented him during sentencing proceedings, as reasons that the death penalty represented a disproportionate punishment for Tisius.
Like the overwhelming majority of those on death row in the U.S., Tisius faced profound neglect, violence and poverty as a child. He was born in 1981 to young parents who made clear they did not want him and had little ability or interest in taking care of him, according to Tisius’ clemency petition. He was deprived of affection, never taught basic hygiene and beaten frequently by his brother, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, his lawyers wrote in his clemency petition. His self-esteem was shattered, and he often wrote himself notes documenting his self-loathing.
“Im weird I’m stupid I’m a weido [sic] I’m ugly I’m a moron nobody likes me I’m ugly I’m a dork a geekazoid I’m a slob I’m a geek nobody loves me I’m not worth a cent,” he wrote while he was in the fourth grade, according to the clemency petition.
In June of 2000, when Tisius was 19, he was sent to the Randolph County Jail to serve a 30-day probation violation sentence for theft. He had briefly met his cellmate, 27-year-old Roy Vance, through mutual friends before they shared a jail cell. Vance, who was facing a 50-year sentence, immediately clocked Tisius as “young and easily manipulated,” Vance said in a video interview from prison, which was included in Tisius’ clemency request. “I took advantage of that.”
In what started as a joke, Vance convinced Tisius to help him escape from the jail after Tisius’ release. Vance’s plan involved Tisius acquiring a gun, returning to the jail, ordering the guards into a cell and handing off the gun to Vance to take over. By Tisius’ release date, the plan had become serious and he gave Vance his word that he would come back to free him.
After his release, Tisius called Vance’s girlfriend, Tracie Bulington. Bulington knew Tisius’ name from Vance sending her drawings that Tisius had made, she said in the clemency video. Vance instructed Bulington to take care of Tisius and never let him out of sight. “I honestly feel like Roy had his doubts that Mike would follow through with what they had planned,” she said.
Bulington was struck by how much Tisius “idolized” Vance and how eager he was to make the older man proud. As the date of the escape attempt neared, Tisius was visibly excited, she said. It was “kind of like a kid getting ready to go see his dad for the first time.”
But when Bulington and Tisius returned to the jail a little more than a week after Tisius’ release, he panicked and fatally shot two people working at the jail, Leon Egley and Jason Acton. He was frantic and “kept apologizing for ruining my life,” said Bulington.
After initially fleeing, Tisius eventually surrendered to the police. “I know what I have done was wrong and will never be fixed,” Tisius wrote in the statement after his arrest. “An Officer asked me if I could go back and do it all over what would I do. I said I would kill myself to save their lives.”
Both Vance and Bulington are serving two life sentences for their role in the plot.
Tisius’ first death sentence was vacated because evidence was presented inaccurately during the penalty phase of his trial. For the second trial, he was appointed two private lawyers contracted by the Missouri State Public Defender who were each paid a flat fee of $10,000.
“The ABA has long cautioned against flat fee arrangements in capital cases because of the ‘unacceptable risk that counsel will limit the amount of time invested in the representation in order to maximize the return on the fixed fee,’” Enix-Ross, the ABA president, wrote in her letter urging the Missouri government to grant clemency.
The Missouri State Public Defender’s office no longer contracts death penalty cases to lawyers for flat fees, the office’s director Mary Fox wrote in a separate letter in support of Tisius’ clemency request. “The use of flat fees disincentivizes the attorneys from performing the essential mitigation investigation, trial preparation, and trial presentation work necessary to effectively represent a person charged with a capital offense,” Fox wrote. In Tisius’ case, she continued, counsel failed to adequately meet and consult with Tisius and failed to present mitigation evidence related to his mental health diagnoses and adolescent brain development.
“The affidavits from jurors included in Michael Tisius’ clemency petition demonstrate that if resentencing counsel had provided the resentencing jurors with the available mitigation evidence; which had been presented at a prior hearing in which Michael Tisius did not have flat fee counsel and which resulted in the new sentencing hearing; that a life without probation or parole sentence could have been returned,” Fox wrote.
Over the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has banned the harshest punishments, including the death penalty and mandatory life without parole sentences, for people who commit crimes before they are 18 years old. These decisions are backed by neurological research showing that an individual’s brain continues developing into their mid-20s. As a result, children and young adults are often impulsive, easily manipulated by others, and struggle to weigh long-term consequences. Moreover, mental illnesses and cognitive issues that impact decision-making abilities often are not diagnosed and treated until adulthood.
Multiple medical experts hired by Tisius’ current legal team have found that his severely traumatic childhood appears to have negatively impacted his neurological development. “[N]europsychological testing corroborates the frontal-temporal-striatal deficits that characterized Mr. Tisius’ cognitive deficits,” neuropsychiatrist George Woods wrote after evaluating him in 2018. “Like a toxic stream running through relatively healthy land, Mr. Tisius’ frontal temporal striatal poisons much of his healthy cognitive functioning, rendering it vulnerable to impaired functioning, especially in new, novel, and stressful circumstance[s].”
A psychiatrist who has evaluated Tisius in 2003, 2012 and 2022 confirmed in his last report that Tisius had indeed matured and grown with age.
Tisius “has learned self-control, has empathy for others, shows empathy for the men he killed, is no longer impulsive, and is seeking to make the best life he can in his current situation,” psychiatrist Stephen Peterson wrote in his last report.
A federal judge ordered last week that Tisius’ execution be halted to investigate evidence that one of the jurors from his trial cannot read English, a state requirement for jury service. An appeals court overruled that decision and the matter is now pending before the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule shortly.
Tisius has spent his past 23 years of incarceration continuing to make art. He has painted murals throughout the prison and donated his art to an auction to raise money for a domestic violence center. “In a world where I felt I had no control, art has given me that control and has allowed me to connect to my emotions, as well as other individuals,” Tisius said in a conversation excerpted in his clemency petition. “It allows me to express myself when my words can’t.”
As his execution date approached, Tisius rushed to finish a painting with a motivational phrase on the wall of a rehabilitation unit for those in long-term segregation. He wanted to finish it before he was killed.
This story has been updated to note the governor’s decision not to exercise clemency.