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June 16, 2023

Missouri Executes Michael Tisius for Crime Committed at Age 19

By Nick Witkowski, Project Intern
Self-Portrait of Michael Tisius

Self-Portrait of Michael Tisius

Clemency Application to Missouri Governor Michael L. Parson

Michael Tisius was executed on June 6, 2023, after Missouri Governor Mike Parson rejected his clemency petition and the United States Supreme Court declined to grant certiorari on a petition arguing that Michael’s age at the time of the crime should make him ineligible for the death penalty. He was the twelfth person executed in the United States and the third person executed in the state of Missouri in 2023.

Roughly two decades ago, Michael Tisius shot and killed guards Leon Egly and Jason Acton while attempting to free an inmate from the Randolph County jail. He had become reacquainted with the inmate, Roy Vance, while serving time for a misdemeanor offense. Vance, eight years his senior, took Michael under his wing and began manipulating him into helping Vance escape from the jail. According to court records, Vance planned to have Michael lure the prison guards into another cell at gunpoint and then free Vance. However, when Michael arrived with Tracie Bulington, Vance’s then-girlfriend, he panicked and shot and killed the two guards. In 2010, a jury sentenced Michael to death; Vance received a life sentence.

After his sentencing, a new legal team collected additional mitigating evidence, including evidence of Michael’s underdeveloped brain due to chronic lead poisoning, his good record in prison, and his susceptibility to Vance’s manipulation, and discussed this new evidence with members of the jury. Michael’s appointed trial attorney, who was paid a flat fee of $10,000 for what should have been five years of work leading up to his capital sentencing hearing, did not explain to the jury how Michael’s age and neurological deficits might have affected his behavior or how he was being controlled by Vance. The trial lawyers representing Michael were unfamiliar with available mitigation witnesses and had not begun preparing until two weeks before the hearing, despite being on his case for years. Michael’s clemency petition included multiple juror affidavits stating that this new evidence compelled them to reconsider their earlier decision to sentence Michael to death. 

The clemency petition also included an affidavit from Vance that illustrated how Vance capitalized on Michael’s immaturity and cognitive underdevelopment. In one quote, Vance said “I manipulated Mike for my own benefit and if it weren’t for me and Tracie, Michael wouldn’t have done this. He was just a kid. This is my fault. It only happened because of me.” Tracie Bulington noted that the relationship between Vance and Michael was not coincidental. Instead, Vance had chosen him to participate in his jailbreak attempt because he was easy to manipulate. In another quote, Vance described Michael as “physically small and [he] acted younger than his actual age.”

While incarcerated on death row, Michael was a model prisoner and showed spiritual, personal, and psychological growth. This change was unusually well documented by a psychologist who followed Michael’s case from the time of his original trial until his execution. Michael committed no disciplinary infractions and he continuously accepted responsibility for what he had done. Many of his fellow prisoners spoke of him as a friend, mentor, and a force for good in the prison. He was an artist and painted murals in the prison, and even gave art lessons. He also encouraged other prisoners to better their lives however possible in the prison.

On May 22, American Bar Association President, Deborah Enix-Ross, wrote a letter to the Missouri governor urging commutation of Michael’s death sentence. In the letter, President Enix-Ross opined that “Michael’s unique vulnerabilities as a traumatized late adolescent and his rehabilitation over the last two decades are a stark example of the disproportionality of the death penalty for murders committed by a 19-year-old.” Five years ago, the ABA adopted a resolution urging capital jurisdictions to prohibit the imposition of a death sentence on any individual who was 21 years old or younger at the time of the offense. The resolution focused on the overwhelming scientific, legal, and societal changes that have occurred since the Supreme Court declared the imposition of the death penalty for individuals under the age of 18 unconstitutional in 2005. Current scientific evidence concerning brain development indicates that the brain of a late adolescent is still undergoing development and is similar to that of a juvenile.

Despite compelling evidence that Michael’s jury lacked crucial information relevant to his culpability and that Michael demonstrated unequivocal growth while in prison, courts refused to consider his claims on procedural grounds. Clemency is the mechanism that the Supreme Court has designated to find relief in cases like Michael’s where no legal avenues remain, but Governor Parson still looked to past court proceedings when denying clemency. He announced a day before the execution that it would go forward as scheduled, saying that Michael’s case had “received fair and careful review at each step in the judicial process.”  

The information and views provided in the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Death Penalty Representation Project’s blog do not constitute official statements by the ABA and do not represent official ABA policy. For more information, please visit our policy and statement pages.