In the last moments of his life, Independence gas station clerk Robert Newton begged Leon Taylor not to shoot him in front of his little girl.
She was only 8, and Newton did not want his stepdaughter to witness such a violent act.
Taylor was unmoved.
He pointed his 9 mm handgun at the 53-year-old Blue Springs man’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
That got him convicted of murder. But it’s what he did next that likely landed him on death row, where he’s facing a Nov. 19 date in the Missouri execution chamber.
Taylor turned and pointed the gun at the little girl. She raised her hands and pleaded for her life.
Taylor was unmoved.
Once again he pulled the trigger.
This time, the weapon jammed. He looked at the gun “in a funny way,” the girl later told detectives. Then he turned and walked away, leaving her to pray over the body of the man she had called daddy since she was 3.
“It was the longest prayer I ever said,” she later testified in court.
Leaving the crime scene that day, Taylor told two relatives with him that he wished he had killed the girl as well.
“I should have choked the bitch,” he said.
A week after the April 14, 1994, killing, a call to the TIPS Hotline led detectives to Taylor.
At first, he denied involvement and said he never had been in the gas station at 316 N. Missouri 291 where Newton worked.
But after investigators lifted his palm print from the station door and he watched a videotaped statement of his half-brother, who was with him the day of the killing, Taylor admitted that they had robbed the station and that he shot Newton.
But Taylor claimed that the gun had fired accidentally. He denied attempting to shoot the little girl.
When he went to trial in 1995, the little girl became the star witness whose dramatic testimony proved key to the Jackson County jury finding Taylor guilty of first-degree murder.
Dan Miller, now a lawyer in private practice, helped prosecute the case. The emotional power of the girl’s testimony nearly brought him to tears despite his years of “doing this grisly business,” he said.
“It’s the only case I ever had where the victim, while testifying, made me choke up,” Miller said.
Michael Hunt, who is still with the Jackson County prosecutor’s office and handled the case with Miller, called the girl’s testimony “tremendous.”
“There was not a dry eye in the jury,” Hunt recalled.
One piece of evidence jurors didn’t hear was a recording of the girl’s 911 call after the killing. Prosecutors feared that it was so prejudicial that it would give Taylor a strong point on appeal, Miller said.
“It was a terrifying thing to listen to,” he said. “It was just devastating.”
After finding Taylor guilty, the jury deadlocked 11-1 on whether he should be sentenced to death. A judge imposed the death penalty.
On appeal, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the case back to Jackson County for re-sentencing by a jury.
This time, jurors imposed the death sentence for Taylor, whose criminal history included a conviction for a murder he committed at age 17.
Asking a jury to impose a death sentence is one of the most difficult things a prosecutor can do and is not done lightly, Hunt said.
“But I believed it then and I still believe it,” Hunt said. “He deserves the death penalty.”
Now in her late 20s, Newton’s stepdaughter declined an interview request for this story.
But during Taylor’s sentencing hearing, she said that when Newton was killed, “the best thing in my life was destroyed.”
“It’s lonely out there with no dad,” she said. “I’ve never had so many nightmares. I’m so unhappy.”
Taylor, now 56, also declined an interview request for this story. He is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 19.
His attorneys are pursuing legal actions on several fronts seeking an execution stay. Those appeals ultimately will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court as almost every pending execution does.
The odds of a stay are not in Taylor’s favor. Of the 10 Missouri executions previously scheduled this year, eight have been carried out.
That suits Newton’s brother, Dennis Smith, just fine.
“He’s been blessed with 20 years he shouldn’t have had,” Smith said of Taylor. “It burns a hole in my gut.”
Robert Newton was a retired autoworker who had taken the gas station job so he could save money to move to southern Missouri and open a bait shop.
Smith described his brother as a “super nice guy.”
He hopes that Taylor has thought about what he did “every second of every day” since it happened.
“I know executing him won’t make it right. Nothing will make it right,” Smith said. “But it’s the right way to go and I think it (appeals) went on too long.”