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Mo. governor responds to pope by commuting death sentence

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–An appeal voiced personally by Pope John Paul II to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan Jan. 27 led him to commute the death sentence of a triple murderer and former drug dealer who claims to have had a jailhouse conversion.
Carnahan, a Southern Baptist layman and popular Democrat, noted in a statement the next day “the historical significance of the papal visit to the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri,” and stated, “I continue to support capital punishment, but after careful consideration of [the pope’s] direct and personal appeal and because of a deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all he represents, I decided last night to grant his request.”
The convict, Darrell J. Mease, was scheduled to die by lethal injection Feb. 10. Acting under provisions of the state constitution, Carnahan commuted Mease’s sentence to life in prison without parole.
In Carnahan’s six years in office, 26 prisoners have been executed. Carnahan, said to be considering a Senate campaign next year, has commuted the sentences of four other killers and granted indefinite stays to three, USA Today reported.
The pope has appealed 10 or more times to stop a U.S. execution, but without prior success. He appealed, for example, last year to spare the life of Karla Fay Tucker, a Texas prisoner who had become a born-again Christian while in prison. Numerous polls show that Americans, including U.S. Catholics, favor the death penalty by roughly a 2-1 margin.
Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a crime victims organization based in Houston, criticized Carnahan for “allowing the pope to substitute his own social views for 10 years of jury decisions, appeals court rulings and good law. It’s a bad precedent.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty constitutional in 1976.
Clements, in comments in USA Today, also said, “The pope ought not to be butting in, and no governor ought to be letting him.”
David Lawrence, son of the deceased couple, told The New York Times, “the governor and the pope are showing more mercy towards a convicted killer than towards us.”
The convict’s mother, Lexie Mease, meanwhile, told The Times she had believed her son’s sentence would be commuted since his conversion soon after his arrest. Mease described herself as a devout Pentecostal. “We knew God was on Darrell’s side and God is the best lawyer you can get. He’s never lost a case.”
She also said she expects her son to be released from prison someday. “He had to be in the position he was in so he can come out and do God’s work,” she said. “By being there, he can understand what it is to be in prison.”
One of Mease’s attorneys, Laura Higgins Tyler, told the Associated Press, “Darrell has remained very steadfast to his faith in that he would receive relief from God. I’d say this sure looks like a miracle to me.”
Tyler told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Darrell has for the last 10 years stated that God was his lawyer, and this makes it very clear that that was true.”
A Post-Dispatch correspondent, Michelle Mueller, who interviewed Mease in 1989 while he was awaiting trial, recounted, “He knew he had to pay for his sins on earth but once in heaven he knew he’d been redeemed.”
And in a recent letter to the paper, Mease wrote, “I had gotten saved when I was 10 and backslid when I was 19 and then ran with Satan and his own for many years.”
John Paul II’s appeal to Carnahan came during the pontiff’s two-day visit to St. Louis. In a Jan. 27 Mass attended by an estimated 100,000 people in the T.W.A. Dome, the pope called on Catholics to be “unconditionally pro-life” and stated, “Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the change to reform.”
The pope voiced his appeal to Carnahan after a late-afternoon interfaith prayer service attended by the governor and his wife, Jean, who shared a front pew with Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper. After greeting Gore, the pope “stopped and talked to me,” Carnahan recounted to The New York Times, “and asked me to show mercy to Mr. Mease.”
Carnahan made up his mind to commute Mease’s sentence at about 9 that night, a spokesman told The Times.
Mease was convicted for the 1988 killing of Lloyd J. Lawrence, in a dispute over control of Lawrence’s methamphetamine-producing business, and Lawrence’s wife and 19-year-old disabled grandson near their rural southwest-Missouri farmhouse just over the Arkansas border. The three victims were riding all-terrain vehicles, with the grandson tied to his vehicle in order to drive it, when Mease ambushed them with a 12-guage shotgun from about 30 feet away and then shot each one in the face. Mease initially confessed to the crime, but on appeal contended the confession had been obtained illegally. Among his defense’s contentions were that he had dealt with post-traumatic stress from Vietnam.