The killings were so brazen, so brutal, they stunned the people of Missouri.
Just after midnight on June 22, 2000, Michael Tisius and Tracie Bulington entered a county jail, intent on forcibly freeing an imprisoned friend. Mr. Tisius, 19 years old and armed with a pistol, shot and killed two guards during the shootout attemptthen fled.
When a jury was asked to convict Tisius of his crimes, its members spent several hours deliberating in July 2010 before reaching a decision: the death penalty.
Now, with Mr. Tisius’ execution set for Tuesday, that jury is facing scrutiny that could cast doubt on the proceeding.
In an unusual step, six jurors, including two alternates, said in affidavits included in a clemency petition that they would favor or not object if the Missouri governor steps in to commute the sentence to life in prison, rather than death. It’s rare, experts say, to see so many jurors formally take such a stand in a death penalty case.
Another juror, when contacted recently by Mr. Tisius, told them that he could not read English, a Requirements in Missouri courts for jury service. A federal judge last week ordered a stay of execution while the illiteracy charge was investigated, but an appeals court reversed that decision on Friday.
In a 56-page petition sent to Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, jurors recounted in statements obtained by Mr. Tisius’s defense team why they changed their minds after the ruling 13 years ago.
They were still convinced of his guilt, jurors said, and believed he should never have been released from prison. But they talked about new details they learned from Mr. Tisius’s legal team and what they remembered from the trial: Mr. Tisius’ harrowing childhood past, which included abuse and neglect; of his mental impairments; and of his good behavior in prison after his conviction.
« I believe people can change and should be given second chances, » a juror said in an affidavit.
« At this time, based on what I have learned from the trial, I would not object to having Mr. Tisius’ sentence reduced to life without parole, » another juror said.
There is no legal recourse for jurors who have changed their minds about a death sentence, said Juandalynn Taylor, a visiting professor at the Gonzaga University School of Law who teaches on the death penalty, even though lawyers often find examples in interviews with jurors during the appeals process.
« Jurors change their minds all the time, » he said. « But if nobody goes and asks them and finds out, then we don’t find out in public. »
In interviews with The New York Times, two jurors said they were haunted by their experience. A woman who served as a substitute teacher said she suffered from anxiety, insomnia and guilt. If she had been allowed to vote, she said, she would not have chosen the death sentence.
Another juror, Jason Smith of Republic, Mo., said that in the 13 years since the sentencing, his views on Mr. Tisius, now 42, have changed.
During the deliberations, Mr. Smith said, he considered it a crucial fact that Mr. Tisius had killed more than one person. Mr. Tisius had the opportunity to stop short of shooting the second prison employee, recalls Mr. Smith’s reasoning, making the death penalty a just punishment.
But he now said he knew, based on what he was recently told by Mr Tisius’s legal team, that doctors who examined him concluded he had mental deficiencies that could have compromised his decision-making. And Mr. Smith learned of medical research showing that the frontal lobe of the brain isn’t fully developed in the teen years.
Mr Smith, 49, said he still supports the death penalty in some cases and believes Mr Tisius should spend the rest of his life in prison.
But she no longer believes that Mr. Tisius deserves to die.
« I feel angry and remorseful, » she said. « I feel I’ve done Michael a disservice. »
Public support for the death penalty in the United States has been declining for decades, and Missouri is one of only four states to have executed one execution in 2023, along with Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This year, Missouri executed Amber McLaughlin, a transgender woman who was convicted of killing her ex-girlfriend, and Leonard Taylor, condemned in 2008 of a quadruple homicide. Two more executions, including that of Mr. Tisius, are scheduled in Missouri this year.
When a jury was asked in 2010 to determine Mr. Tisius’ conviction, they were told of the failed escape attempt that led to the murders of Jason Acton and Leon Egley: Mr. Tisius had tried to free an inmate, Roy Vance , who had previously been his cellmate. Since then Mr. Vance, who is serving a life sentence for his role in the murders, has She said who manipulated Mr. Tisius to carry out the escape plan.
The other person who was trying to free Mr. Vance was Mr. Vance’s girlfriend, Tracie Bulington. She was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for her role in the murders.
During a grievance hearing in 2010 — convened after the court found evidence of prosecutorial misconduct at an early hearing — jurors were briefed on Mr. Tisius’s difficult life, including abuse at the hands of his older brother. A juror, Ginny Young, said The Columbia Daily Tribune in 2010 that as soon as the group left the courtroom, several jurors started crying.
“They felt bad that they had to put this man to death,” Ms Young said at the time. “One of them said, ‘You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel sick.’ I guess I’m not human, because I don’t feel bad. Maybe I need some therapy. I think the punishment is justified by the crime.
Some jurors who have been contacted by Mr. Tisius’s legal team have affirmed their original decision that Mr. Tisius should be sentenced to death, or have refused to sign affidavits, said Keith O’Connor, a lawyer for Mr. Tisius.
A substitute juror interviewed by the Times recalled riding in a van with other jurors after leaving the courthouse. The juror, who declined to be named because she said she had privacy concerns, recalled crying, thinking the jury had made a mistake.
Mr. Smith said it was uneventful during most of the long journey.
« A lot of people were probably just thinking about it, » she said. « We were all ready to go home. »
After the conviction, he returned to the rhythms of his life. He spoke to his parents about the case. At least once, he looked up Mr. Tisius’ booking photo on the Missouri Department of Corrections website.
In the dining room of his home, Mr. Smith withdrew the affidavit he signed in support of the commutation of Mr. Tisius’ sentence, a document which has been on the table since last year. As the date of the execution approached, Mr. Smith thought often of Mr. Tisius and the trial, he said.
« I wasn’t emotionally upset by my decision, » said Mr. Smith, who works in food distribution. But he still weighed on him.
« I hated having a part in someone’s death, » she said.
For Linda Arena of Rocheport, Mo., sister of Jason Acton, one of the slain prison employees, the death sentence brought relief. The years since have been a long wait for what she sees as justice.
Ms. Arena, 73, remembers her brother as a warm, fun boy with a deep love of the outdoors. As an adult, she said, she took a job at the prison because he hoped he would be a stepping stone to a position as park ranger.
It is difficult for Mrs. Arena to even pronounce Mr. Tisius’ name.
« He’s a nonentity to me, » she said. « A nonentity who took my brother. »
Since then, opponents of the death penalty have stepped up their efforts to get Mr. Parson, the Republican governor, to commute the sentence.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Pope’s representative in the United States, asked Mr. Parson for clemency. The American Bar Association discussed in a letter that capital punishment should be banned in cases of people who committed crimes when they were 21 or younger.
Mary Fox, director of the Missouri state public defense system, has asked Mr. Parson to commute the sentence, said that Mr. Tisius was not actually represented during the tria. (Christopher Slusher, an attorney who defended Tisius during the 2010 ruling, did not return a message.)
Ms Fox said the capital punishment process can be concerning for jurors, prison employees who know inmates and lawyers who defend their clients.
« One of my jobs is to take care of the people who work for me, and one of the things I see is the trauma my people are going through, » she said. « It’s traumatic for everyone involved. »
In the final days before Mr. Tisius’s scheduled execution, the plea for clemency — and statements from several jurors supporting a commutation of his sentence — left Ms. Arena confused and angry.
« It kind of makes me angry, because they’ve heard all the evidence, » she said. “They knew this guy was going to do it. They brought a gun on purpose. He killed Jason and he killed Leon.
All the years her brother was away, Mrs. Arena thought of Mr. Tisius spending his days in prison. Why was he free to be alive, she asked, to eat, to converse with other people, when Jason wasn’t?
Ms. Arena is determined to drive Tuesday morning to Bonne Terre, where the execution is scheduled.
She plans to bring a photo of Jason and hold on to it. But she isn’t sure how executing her will leave her feelings for her, or if she will be able to look Mr. Tisius in the eye.
« It will be difficult, » Ms. Arena said. « I’m not sure how it will affect me, seeing someone die. »
Through a spokeswoman, the Missouri attorney general declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
In a statement from jail, Mr. Tisius said he still believed there was a chance Mr. Parson would commute his sentence. « My only hope is that the Governor will make his decision based on me, my remorse, my life and my rehabilitation over the past 23 years, » he said. « I feel like I’ve changed. I hope he can see it in me too. »
Mr. Parson has not yet released a statement on his decision regarding Mr. Tisius’ clemency request.
Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.