RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This week we've been exploring the American underworld, and our next story leads to the underside of rural Missouri. That's where a drug kingpin and his family were shotgunned to death in the 1990s. The killer ended up on death row until his life was saved by the pope. John Paul II persuaded Missouri's governor to commute the death sentence.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
That famous story of murder, politics, and religion was irresistible to Michael Cuneo. He's a Canadian author who believes the story says a lot about America. Cuneo wanted to know the convict at the center of that story, so he sought out the killer and went on to write a book about him called Almost Midnight.
Mr. MICHAEL CUNEO (Author, Almost Midnight): I first met Darrell Mease at Potosi Correctional Center, which is a super maximum penitentiary about 65 miles south of St. Louis. And I went with a fair bit of trepidation. The guy had committed an absolutely brutal triple homicide and I certainly understood that he had undergone an intense religious conversion, which is very common in the United States for people who have committed wretchedly terrible crimes to undergo a conversion of this sort. And...
INSKEEP: It's not common in other countries?
Mr. CUNEO: I think it's more common. I mean this is really Americana, like clang(ph) door salvation. And what I found was a strikingly friendly guy, a terrific raconteur. And over the course of, I would say, 25 to 30 personal meetings with him at Potosi, I became convinced of the legitimacy of his conversion. I wasn't comfortable talking about it actually.
When I met with Darrell Mease, part of our time would invariably be spent with him telling me about his life growing up in the Ozarks. This wonderful, murky area of the United States which is a region in eclipse; it's a region on the on the verge of extinction. That's where Darrell came from. He grew up hunting and fishing in the Ozarks...
INSKEEP: Also - also a...
Mr. CUNEO: ...and training in the Ozarks.
INSKEEP: ...deeply religous area. Was he a religious person growing up?
Mr. CUNEO: Deeply reli - yes, Steve. It's a deeply religious area, fervently Pentecostal for the most part. His mother and many of his relatives assumed that he would grow up to be a preacher.
INSKEEP: Was there one incident that comes to mind that shows the way that Darrell Mease made the transition from being on the path to preaching to being a small-time criminal?
Mr. CUNEO: A decisive factor in Darrell's life was Vietnam. When he returned from Vietnam, he was markedly different and everyone noted that. His life wound up going into a downward spiral. And so he was scuffling about for work. And by this point, he had fallen in love with a 19-year-old woman from Branson, Missouri. Darrell, at this point, was in his early 40s; Mary Epps, his girlfriend, was just 19. He wanted to make some money. A guy that he'd known since a child - Lloyd Lawrence - said to Darrell, you want to make millions of dollars, you come to work with me. I'll set you up in a meth lab and I'll teach you the tricks of the trade.
Darrell was immensely flattered - this outlaw of inestimable reputation in the Ozarks approaching him and asking Darrell to work for him - Darrell jumped at the chance.
INSKEEP: How did it happen that Darrell Mease, this guy who was working for this drug dealer and delighted to do so, ended up driving down a road in Missouri intending to kill him?
Mr. CUNEO: Darrell became convinced - and I should think with considerable justification - that Lloyd was intent on turning Darrell's young girlfriend into a crank whore. Darrell and Mary decided to flee Missouri, but again, they made a wretchedly bad mistake. They stole some of Lloyd's finished crank product - worth about $150,000 - and they took off to California. But in the meantime, Lloyd was infuriated that his drugs had been ripped off and he put a contract out on Darrell's life.
INSKEEP: Granting that he went and killed the drug dealer, who he believed was out to kill him, why did he go on to kill two more people?
Mr. CUNEO: Once he killed Lloyd, I think that the cold stone logic of killing may have taken over. And tragically enough, and miserably enough, I think also there was the horrible logic of self-preservation at work, because he didn't want to leave witnesses.
INSKEEP: So he's caught. He's convicted. He's sentenced to death. How did the pope get involved in all this?
Mr. CUNEO: Darrell's execution was scheduled for January the 27th, 1999. They delivered the writ of execution to his cell and his response was hallelujah, brother, bring it on. By this point, he had had this intense religious conversion. He was absolutely convinced - he claimed that he had received a divine revelation guaranteeing that under no circumstances whatsoever that would he ever be executed - so he said it doesn't matter. This guy can bring in execution warrants, it ain't happening.
A few days later, the Missouri state supreme court issued a revised execution warrant, changing the date of execution from January the 27th to February the 10th, 1999. The reason: it occurred to them that the pope, John Paul II, was scheduled to visit St. Louis, Missouri on January the 27th.
INSKEEP: They didn't want an execution on the same day the pope was in town.
Mr. CUNEO: Well, they thought imagine the disastrous public relations consequences of this, so they tried to push it back. This succeeded, however, only in drawing the attention of the pope and his people to the Darrell Mease case. And so when the pope visited St. Louis on January the 27th, he had some of his people meet with Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan. And the pope's people asked the governor if the governor could please spare Darrell Mease's life.
The governor didn't want to do this, and understandably. They said listen, could you please spare his life? And the governor said I will think about it. Later that afternoon, on January the 27th, Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri attended an ecumenical prayer service at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. After the prayer service, the pope teetered down from the altar and he walked right up to Governor Mel Carnahan, who was sitting beside Al Gore, and he said, Governor, please spare the life of Mr. Darrell Mease.
And I think he was so overtaken by the momentousness of this occasion, by the power of the moment, he agreed to commute Darrell's death sentence. And so Darrell received a commutation.
INSKEEP: Is there justice in this? The three murder victims are dead. Mel Carnahan, the man who commuted the sentence, died in a plane crash. Pope John Paul II is dead now. And Darrell Mease, the killer, was alive to get on a phone from prison and give commentary on cable television about the pope's death.
Mr. CUNEO: It's absolutely bizarre. I like Darrell despite everything that he's done. Are there people who are more deserving of this commutation? Undoubtedly so. Darrell's crimes were absolutely hideous. So I don't thing this is a case of justice well served.
INSKEEP: Michael Cuneo is the author of Almost Midnight, about an execution that was stopped.
MONTAGNE: Our conversations continue tomorrow with a woman who wrote about death row after witnessing an execution that went forward.
Unidentified Woman: It was a long six minutes to watch someone die. A tear rolled down his cheek, then he struggled to breath, and then it was over.