Commentary: Missouri governor should halt executions of adolescent offenders

Execution Table in a prison

DISCLAIMER: This article is a commentary. The statements and opinions contained in the article are those of the author, Laura Schopp. The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of KTTN/KGOZ Radio, staff, management, or webmaster.

(Missouri Independent) – Wise parents the world over take pride in watching our late adolescents grow into adulthood, knowing the hormones, emotions, and impulses of youth will eventually give way to greater calm and steadiness as the brain matures.

On June 22, 2000, 19-year-old Michael Tisius was too young to drink alcohol legally. But he is scheduled for execution on June 6 for murders he committed that summer day.

Michael Tisius fatally shot deputies Leon Egley and Jason Acton during an attempted breakout from the Randolph County Jail. Tisius was groomed by fellow detainee Roy Vance, eight years older than Tisius and serving time for a previously attempted escape, while Michael served time for a relatively minor offense.

After release, Tisius returned to the jail to help Vance escape. Vance admitted in sworn testimony that he took advantage of Tisius, who seemed especially young and impressionable.

Indeed, Tisius was a “young” 19 at the time of the crimes.

He sustained multiple concussions and regular severe beatings from an older brother and has a form of epilepsy sometimes associated with brain injuries. He experienced bedwetting into adolescence, grade repetition, and academic failure. He was homeless for years as a young adolescent. His school performance rose and fell with his tragic life circumstances, and a formal cognitive evaluation was discussed but never implemented. Teachers and other adults described Michael as particularly gullible and in need.

Tisius may have been able to meet these challenges if intensive support was available at home, but his family struggled with multiple suicides, domestic violence, and parental abandonment.  As a child, he craved stability, asking several nurturing older women if he might call them “Mom.”

The American Psychological Association, after an extensive review of neurodevelopment research, has urged an end to executions for crimes committed before age 21.

The human brain continues to develop until at least age 25, especially in areas related to planning, anticipating consequences, and inhibiting harmful impulses. The structures and networks of the frontal lobe are especially critical for prudent decision-making, and these networks have not completed development at age 19.

Instead, late adolescent brains often rely on more primitive structures deep in the brain that regulate emotional and threat processing, which often leads to rapid, fight-or-flight panic reactions in situations that instead call for calmer, rational decision-making.

Such neurodevelopmental psychological research featured prominently in the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court’s Roper v. Simmons case, originating in Missouri and resulting in a ruling outlawing imposition of the death penalty for persons under 18 years old at the time of the crime.

This body of research consistently places full brain maturation in the mid-twenties, and public policy is most informed when it is consistent with credible scientific findings. As the scientific understanding of the human brain progresses and as Missourians experience an evolving standard of decency, perhaps Missouri lawmakers will propose a change in law during the next session to match the established science.

Tisius has embraced an opportunity to “grow up” while incarcerated, adapting well to the structure and consistency of prison life. Now in his early forties, Tisius has steadfastly expressed remorse since moments after killing the men.

He confessed immediately after being captured and has found ways to serve society within the constraints of prison life. He mentors other prisoners, particularly those who are frail, have mental health issues, or struggle to adapt to prison life. He has used his artistic gifts to paint murals in the prison and has donated artwork for fundraisers nationwide, including to domestic violence shelters.

Given the governor’s extensive experience in law enforcement as a sheriff, he is likely aware of how rare it is for a current or former prison warden to advocate publicly on behalf of a prisoner facing execution. Troy Steele, the warden who oversaw the Potosi Correctional Center, has done just that for the first time in his 26-year career in law enforcement.  He recently described  Tisius as “one of the best behaved” inmates he had encountered.

“Offender Tisius is a model inmate,” Steele stated. “I would not foresee this changing if he was incarcerated for the rest of his life.”

We must hold Tisius accountable for his horrific crimes, and we must do so in a manner that reflects the best available scientific evidence.  Given Tisius’s age at the time of these crimes, his developmental challenges, and his improvement while incarcerated, please urge the governor to halt the execution and commute Tisius’ sentence to life in prison without parole by calling 573-751-3222 or writing a note via his website.

Laura Schopp

Laura Schopp is a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist, professor emerita and former chair of the University of Missouri Department of Health Psychology.