Death Sentence Commuted: An Epiphany For Me

Death Sentence Commuted: An Epiphany For Me, THE OZARKS

WARNING: No graphic photos but the following does include a graphic description of a crime scene. LEFTeyeSTORIES after all, are those personal experiences…good, bad or ugly…that happen during photo assignments.

A boy grieves under the stress of the fast approaching day when his father will walk from his prison cell for the last time and put to death by the citizens of the state of Missouri. His schoolmates taunt him with, “Your daddy’s gonna die soon. He’s gittin’ what he deserves, ya know.” A mother sits in her rural Ozarks home reading the Bible, praying and wondering how her son whom she raised in the church, was well liked growing up and had even wanted to become a preacher before serving in the military in Viet Nam, could come to this. A former county prosecutor takes at least some degree of satisfaction as the last chapter of this capital murder case comes to a close. He was successful and successfully prosecuting cases like this helped to advance his career from county prosecutor to Associate Circuit Judge. An ailing and very frail Pope leans forward and whispers a plea in the ear of a Missouri governor and the wheels are put in motion that ultimately put me on the back roads of Taney County Missouri to meet up with some of these folks. The story of how convicted murderer, Darrell Mease ended up on Missouri’s death row reads like a chapter in Daniel Woodrell’s novel, “Winter’s Bone”. While the book does not parallel this particular crime, it does profile the meth culture that pervades so much of the rural Ozarks. Much of the 2010 movie by the same name was filmed in Taney County where Mease lived and committed the triple homicide more than two decades earlier. In 1987, Darrell Mease began working with Lloyd J. Lawrence to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. The relationship soured and Mease left the area, but not before stealing some of the drug. Lawrence made it known he intended to kill Mease so Mease decided to strike first. Mease and a female companion returned to Taney County in May 1988. He formed and then carried out a plan to ambush Loyd Lawrence while Lawrence and his wife, Frankie and their 19-year old paraplegic grandson, William were riding their four-wheeled all terrain vehicles near the Lawrence home. The three were shot as they drove past where Mease lay hidden waiting for the opportune moment. Each was then shot at point-blank in the head with a shotgun. Lawmen followed the trail back to Mease and he was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. After years of going through the appeals process, a date was set for his execution: February 10th, 1999. During that time, Mease claimed to have undergone a jailhouse conversion even though he had come to accept his destiny on earth. In a letter he wrote, “I had gotten saved when I was ten and backslid when I was 19 and then ran with Satan and his own for many years.” Mease’s original execution date was January 27th but was changed when it was discovered that date coincided with a visit to St. Louis by Pope John Paul II. During that visit, the Pope approached Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and asked that Mease’s life be spared. The next morning the governor signed an order commuting the sentence to ‘life without parole.’ That’s when photo requests started coming in. News outlets like the Associated Press and the New York Times wanted photos of Mease’s mother, the Taney County prosecutor who put him on death row and any other players. The Pope had requested clemency for other death row inmates in Missouri and in other states, but without success. So, this is suddenly a national news story and I’m on the road to meet reporters from the Times and the AP and Darrell Mease’s mother, Lexie Mease at her house.

Typical of many rural Ozarks’ homes, Lexie Mease’s home is in Taney County, Missouri. (Copyrighted by John S. Stewart/

Late January in the Ozarks is not particularly picturesque. In fact, most of us who live here are beginning to feel the effects of the gray landscape, gray sky, short days and like today, cold rain that sum up most winters in the Ozarks. As I drove past familiar summer tourist spots and turned on a gravel road, I passed small vacant A-frame shaped chicken coops. I have seen these coops on past trips down this road when each miniature A-frame housed a single rooster tethered to a stake. I am reminded of just how close the family oriented summertime touristy Ozarks and its seedier cock-fighting meth making kin are to each other. The gravel drive up to her house just sort of petered out into an undefined area of parking and yard. Lexie Mease’s house sat at the bottom of a hill with no neighbors close by; not close by like we have in town. I could see a faint ribbon of blue smoke rising from the chimney through the cold windshield wiper drizzle. Two dogs lounging on the front stoop were now on high alert deciding if I was friend or foe. When I am travelling separately from a reporter, I like to arrive a little early. It gives me a chance to get oriented before the reporter/subject conversation moves into high gear. I have less of that, “got in on the middle of the conversation” feel that makes it hard to feel like you are at your best. Lexie answered the door with, “Oh, come in. I just have to finish dressing. I’ll be just a minute.” She was pretty much dressed except for changing out of a terry cloth wrap and house shoes. The small shy, almost timid woman seemed like the type that would bring a plate of cookies over if she knew you were having a bad day. On the wall hung a cross and picture of Jesus. On the table lay a Bible. In the corner near the door was a wood burning stove that are still the primary source of heat in many rural Ozarks homes. “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just warm up by your stove. I love the smell of wood smoke and there’s nothing like wood heat.” She looked back, smiled and said, “You know, this has all happened so fast. My grandson, Darrell’s boy, was here but I sent him away. He’s had such a hard time and has been so stressed. The kids at school have been so cruel. I just didn’t think he needed to have to talk to the news people.” Before she made it to the bedroom, the phone rang. “Hello. Yes. Darrell! Yes, honey.” Then to me, “This is Darrell. This is my son, Darrell. This is the first I’ve talked to him since…” Turning back to the phone, “Yes, it’s wonderful. I’m so happy.” Sorry lady. Terry cloth wrap or not it’s picture time. As compelling and dramatic as stories like this are, they are visually slim. They are best told by the wordsmiths with quotes from those involved and as a photographer, you hope to get photos of the people being quoted so the reader can put a face with quotes. When mom talks to her son for the first time since his death sentence was officially commuted, that’s worth a shot. Sometimes it pays to be early. The phone conversation ended and Lexie was euphoric having talked with her son who literally had a new lease on life. The reporter from the New York Times arrived and she began her interview and I took some more photos. It wasn’t long, however, before the mood turned as chilly as the cold drizzle outside. My pre-interview warmup rapport I had established was gone. The little lady I was sure would have brought cookies to my door if I was having a bad day had transformed into the ice queen. In the years since the trial, Lexie Mease had come to terms with the fact that her son had murdered three people. What she had not come to terms with or had just denied it to herself was that it was drug related. When the Times reporter brought it up, Lexie denied it was drugs at the root of the crime. When pressed on the issue, Lexie terminated the interview and invited us to leave. In the meantime, the Associated Press reporter arrived and was waiting outside for his one on one time. He had the awkward task of pleading my case to allow me to stay for photos for him since I wasn’t really with the Times anymore now that the interview was over and that I was with him now and that I was really a good guy. Lexie warmed back up, a little, and I got my photos. Next, I had to make a short drive to Forsyth, Missouri to get a photo of the former Taney County prosecutor who put Darrell Mease on death row. James K. Justus was now Associate Circuit Judge James K. Justus and he did not share Lexie Mease’s joy at having her son’s life spared. Justus greeted me in his office and invited me to sit down at a table. I did so and then with all the restrained anger of a husband who had just found out his wife had cheated on him and had the photos to prove it and wanted to show them in hopes of gaining an ally, he slapped down three crime scene photos one by one in front of me. They were gruesome. Two of the photos showed the bodies of a man and a woman with their heads blown into many pieces spread over several square yards of green grass like smashed watermelons. The third photo showed the body of the 19-year old paraplegic grandson with his legs still tied to the sides of the four-wheeled ATV so he could stay on. It showed his body thrown backward and severe head trauma. I looked at the photos for a time making a concerted effort not to recoil or show any emotion and then looked up at Justus. He said, “Why…why should a person who did this NOT pay with his life? What do you think? Do you have an opinion?” I looked back down at the photos and thought for a moment. Why should he not pay with his life? This is awful. If there were any “innocent victims” of this crime, surely it was the 19-year old or maybe his grandmother. They were obviously killed to make sure there were no witnesses. Then I began thinking about Mease’s own son. He’s a victim. He’s alive. He’s not been shot in the head but still he is a victim of this crime. This will affect him for the rest of his life; but how? That could depend on his father being allowed to live (not go free) or if we, the citizens of Missouri, decide to make Darrell Mease pay with his life. Would that de-victimize anybody or help ease someone’s pain in some sick fashion? Or, will it just create more victims in ways that are not as obvious and may not become clear for many years. I looked back up at Justus and responded, “I’m not really here…to give an opinion. I’m here to take photographs.” He said, “OK. Then let’s do what you’re here to do. Where do you want me?”

John S. Stewart

Link to the Associated Press Story:

Link to the New York Times Story:

Link to an NPR  audio interview with Michael Cuneo, author of “Almost Midnight”, a book that  profiles Darrell Mease, the circumstances that lead up to the killings and the Pope’s involvement.