A Tale of Two Michael’s: Michael Zoosman Calls for Clemency for Mike Tisius

Left: Michael (“Mike”) Tisius, born February 16, 1981 Right: The author, Michael Zoosman, born May 16, 1981

Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Kansas City Star on May 16, 2023 under the title “Mike Tisius is a lot like me. Missouri, don’t kill him in yet another state murder”

Michael (Mike) Tisius and Michael Zoosman are pen pals. 

Mike T. is scheduled for Missouri execution for murder on June 6, 2023

Michael Z. is an ordained Jewish clergyperson, a former Jewish prison chaplain, a third-generation Holocaust survivor and co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” a group with thousands of members worldwide. 

Mike was born on February 16, 1981 in Missouri. 

Michael was born on May 16, 1981 in Connecticut.

Mike comes from a family with a long history of generations of abuse and neglect. Throughout his childhood, his father abandoned him, his mother severely neglected him, and his older brother tormented him with physical and emotional abuse. He came to believe as a young boy that he was useless, that he did not possess worthy or admirable attributes, and that he deserved to be victimized and to suffer.  

Michael comes from a loving family and Jewish community that showered him with support and guidance to pursue all the worthy desires of his heart.

Mike was homeless on the streets of Missouri by the time he was in ninth grade.

Michael was happily living with his family in ninth grade and made the honor roll at a prestigious suburban high school.

At the age of 19, while Mike’s brain was still developing, he was incarcerated for 30 days for petty theft. In jail, he fell under the influence of an older inmate, who showered him with attention the likes of which he had not previously received. 

At the age of 19, while Michael’s brain was still developing, he was privileged to fill it with academic study. He was guided by a plethora of clergy mentors.

In the year 2000, Mike promised his newfound inmate-mentor that he would break him out of jail after his own release from incarceration. During his attempt to do so, he murdered correctional officers Leon Egley and Jason Acton – may their memories be for everlasting blessings. For this horrific crime, Mike was sentenced to death by lethal injection. 

In the year 2000, Michael took a college course entitled “The Destruction of European Jewry.” He learned that lethal injection was first implemented by the Nazis as part of their infamous Aktion T4 protocol to kill people deemed “unworthy of life” as devised by Dr. Kart Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler. 

Since entering Missouri’s death row, Mike has taken refuge in his art. He has painted several murals within Potosi Correctional Center’s Special Needs Unit (SNU) and donated paintings to the institution, to a domestic violence center, as well as to churches and service organizations across the country.

Since becoming a prison chaplain, Michael has taken refuge from the shadow of the Holocaust that hangs over humanity striving to ensure that “NEVER AGAIN to state-sponsored murder!” has meaning. The group that he co-founded –  “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” – chants the words of renowned Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who famously said of capital punishment: “Death is not the answer.” Weisel also said this: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”

Mike now is 42 years old and has lived peacefully in the Missouri Department of Corrections for over twenty years. He has had no prison conduct violations for a decade, and prison adjustment experts identify him as “an exemplary prisoner.” Multiple psychiatrists over the span of twenty years have concluded that Michael understands the seriousness of his offense and shows empathy and remorse for the people he has hurt, particularly the families of the victims.

Michael will turn 42 years old just days before Mike’s execution. His former pen pal Darryl Barwick was the last American to be put to death before Mike –  on May 3, 2023 in Florida. In his last words before being lethally injected, Darryl pleaded for “compassion and kindness” for so many kids in prison – there are 14- and 15-year-olds serving life sentences.”

Mike – when sentenced to die – was not much older than these children. In Hebrew, the word for compassion – “rachamim” – comes from the root “rechem,” which refers to a mother’s womb. Mike was not so far removed from that womb when humanity removed from him the last worldly vestiges of compassion with a sentence of death. Mike’s developing brain was not yet at “full-term” when Missouri ordered the so-called Nazi-needle to abort his very life. 

Michael – if he were born three months later and several hundred miles southwest – might very well now be facing the same death sentence as Mike. Sixteenth-century  reformer (and eventual execution victim) John Bradford said in reference to a group of prisoners he saw being led to execution: “there but for the grace of God” go I. Michael says the same for himself – and for all of humanity. 

For all these reasons and more, Michael joins the thousands of members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” as we beg the “pro-life” state of Missouri to show compassion to his pen pal, Mike Tisius, together with all in line for state murder. 

L’chaim – to Life!

Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM

Board Certified Chaplain –  Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty” 

Advisory Committee Member, Death Penalty Action

About the Author
Cantor Michael Zoosman is a Board Certified Chaplain with Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains (NAJC) and received his cantorial investiture from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2008. He sits as an Advisory Committee Member at Death Penalty Action and is the co-founder of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.” Michael is a former Jewish prison chaplain and psychiatric hospital chaplain. Currently, he is a multi-faith hospital chaplain at a federal research hospital, the National Institutes of Health - Clinical Center. His comments here represent his own opinions.
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