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Issue Date:  October 8, 2004

By Michael Cuneo
Broadway Books, 340 pages, $24.95
A murderer saved by the pope

Darrell Mease was spared from execution by serendipity and John Paul II

Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD

In 1988 Darrell Mease killed three people in Missouri, one of them a young paraplegic. Ten years later the man viewed as the “poster boy” for capital punishment in Missouri escaped death when Pope John Paul II pleaded for mercy on his behalf during a visit to St. Louis.

Michael Cuneo, a Fordham University professor, recounts in his sporadically engrossing new book Almost Midnight how Mease became a murderer and discusses his trial and the pope’s appeal that saved his life. Almost Midnight, his second book, follows the well-received American Exorcism.

Almost Midnight is, in a sense, Mease’s biography, and its singular achievement is to present Mease’s story’s full arc, allowing readers to understand how his story, like most other stories of death row prisoners, confounds the public’s assumptions about these prisoners. He is, to paraphrase Sr. Helen Prejean, more than the worst thing he’s done. Cuneo is at his best evoking the Ozark mountain culture in Missouri where Mease was raised. It’s a curious combination of Pentecostal religious fervor and a backwoods way of life in which young men learn to shoot a gun at an early age, become profoundly suspicious of the law and are drawn to moonshining and cockfighting. While he was drawn to the Ozarks’ outlaw culture, Mease, many believed, seemed destined to become a preacher.

Things changed, according to the author, after Mease’s tour in Vietnam in 1967 when he became seriously involved with drinking and drugs. When he returned home, an increasingly paranoid and resentful Mease told a friend, “You know the Marines spent thousands of dollars teaching me to kill, and I still haven’t killed anyone.” Two marriages failed. When Mease began using crank methamphetamine in 1987, it prompted the radical, disturbing change in him that led him down the road to death row.

Crank also deepened Mease’s association with Lloyd Lawrence, who, according to Cuneo, was the Ozarks’ most feared outlaw. He controlled a booming meth empire that took hold in the Ozarks much in the same way moonshine did decades earlier. During this period, Mease also met the love of his life, Mary Epps, who, at 18, was more than 20 years younger than he. Mease sensed his luck turning finally when Lawrence invited him to run his meth production, which he believed Lawrence would turn over entirely to him, setting him and Epps up financially. However, when Lawrence didn’t deliver on his promise, Mease stole some of his drugs, stashed them in the woods, and he and Epps ran.

After several months traveling, Mease became convinced Lawrence would kill him. Mease returned in May 1988 to the Ozarks to kill Lawrence before he could kill him. Mease snuck on to Lawrence’s property and murdered him, his wife and his paraplegic grandson. Mease and Epps ran again and were arrested eight months later in January 1989 in Arizona.

While on death row, Mease experienced a religious conversion that Cuneo and others believe was sincere. Mease became convinced God was his lawyer, and that he would be spared execution and eventually released from prison. A devout Pentecostal, Mease possessed core anti-Catholic prejudices. The pope was the last person Mease wanted to save him.

That’s what happened, however, when Missouri serendipitously scheduled Mease’s execution on the same day as a papal visit to St. Louis. A staunch death penalty proponent, Gov. Mel Carnahan was nonetheless embarrassed by the execution’s timing and believed he had to pardon Mease when the pope pleaded personally at a papal Mass, “Governor, will you please have mercy on Mr. Mease?”

This extraordinary, unprecedented moment proved evanescent to death penalty opponents who hoped the pardon would slow the pace of executions in Missouri. There were six executions there in the six months after the pardon, and the pope’s next plea for mercy from Rome was routinely dismissed.

Cuneo, for the most part, tells this fascinating tale well. The more fastidious reader may be distracted by his colloquial style. Fragments abound, and he interrupts sentences only to conclude the original sentences paragraphs later. Furthermore, in describing Mease and Epps’ life on the run, Cuneo introduces incidents -- Epps’ flirtation with an apparent religious cult, for instance -- that falsely signal a significant transition that doesn’t happen.

Almost Midnight’s epilogue, however, is its chief failure. Cuneo revisits Ozark bars and strip clubs to recount patrons’ musings about Mease. He concludes with one’s comment that the pope and Mease are good old boys. This is an inane pop culture exercise that mars but doesn’t ruin an otherwise commendable effort.

Chris Byrd is a freelance writer who lives in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004

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