JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court has overturned the death sentence of a man convicted of killing his prison cellmate, ruling that jurors at his first trial never heard critical evidence in deciding his punishment.
Along with ordering a new punishment proceeding for Michael D. Taylor, the court on Tuesday also upheld the death sentence for Scott A. McLaughlin for fatally stabbing an ex-girlfriend in 2003.
Taylor entered prison in 1998 on a life sentence for the 1995 rape, beating and drowning of a classmate, Christine Smetzer, in a bathroom stall at McCluer North High School in St. Louis County. Both Taylor and Smetzer were 15 years old at the time of the killing.
In 1999, Taylor was accused of strangling Shackrein Thomas, a fellow inmate at Potosi Correctional Center. The two had been cellmates for nine days when Thomas was killed.
Taylor was convicted in 2003 of first-degree murder in Thomas' strangulation, and the Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the conviction.
But the court ordered a new punishment proceeding, finding in part that prosecutors improperly withheld evidence, including letters from a prison informant, that showed a pattern of deceit.
The Supreme Court also faulted Taylor's defense lawyers at the 2003 trial for failing to delve deeply enough during the penalty phase into his history of mental health problems.
Taylor had admitted to an investigator that he strangled his cellmate because "father" from the "dark side" instructed him to "send" Thomas to him. The defense argued during the guilt phase of Taylor's trial for an acquittal by reason of insanity.
But the defense failed during the penalty phase to present all of the evidence available to it of Taylor's mental problems and abusive childhood, the Supreme Court said. Such evidence included a threat at age 10 to commit suicide at school by jumping off a window ledge, beatings by his father and an attempt to have his "demons" exorcised from him.
Taylor has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and anti-social personality disorder.
Attorney general's office spokesman John Fougere said Tuesday that the office will discuss with local prosecutors whether to again seek the death penalty for Taylor.
"The state is ready to argue in the penalty phase that the original maximum penalty should be assessed," Fougere said.
Also Tuesday, the state Supreme Court upheld the death sentence given to McLaughlin for fatally stabbing an ex-girlfriend in 2003.
During the penalty phase, the jury agreed beyond a reasonable doubt that McLaughlin had acted with the necessary depravity of mind to be executed. But jurors couldn't agree on his punishment and deadlocked on whether mitigating factors demanding a life prison sentence trumped the aggravating factors.
A trial judge, relying on the jury's determination that McLaughlin had acted with depravity of mind, sentenced him to be executed.
At issue was a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found only juries could decide on the facts that would warrant giving a defendant the death penalty. McLaughlin's attorneys argued that means that he should not have been ordered to be executed by a judge.
Since the 2002 ruling, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Steven H. Goldman was the first Missouri judge to order a defendant be executed without a jury recommendation.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a jury made the decision that a necessary aggravating factor was present and that state law allows for a judge to decide whether someone should receive the death penalty if the deadlocked jury has concluded that aggravating factors are present.