JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) _ With a papal plea, the governor's grace and a lottery winner's luck, convicted triple murderer Darrell Mease has escaped the death penalty.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Mel Carnahan will evade political consequences for commuting Mease's sentence to life in prison following a face-to-face plea from Pope John Paul II.

Carnahan, a Baptist and a Democrat, is running for a U.S. Senate seat next year in a state where it's widely accepted that most voters favor capital punishment.

``God help him if there are any grieving relatives (of Mease's victims), because he will need the pope to come back to campaign for him,'' said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

On 26 occasions, Carnahan has allowed the death penalty to proceed. Before Thursday, he had commuted a death sentence just once, for a man whose jury wasn't told of his mental retardation.

The pope has spoken out frequently against capital punishment and he did so again during his two-day visit to St. Louis this week. In 1991, before Carnahan was governor, the pope asked Missouri to reduce the sentence of Glennon Sweet for killing a state trooper. Carnahan reviewed Sweet's case, but declined to halt his execution last year.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, met with Carnahan and relayed the pope's plea for Mease. Later, the pope, after a prayer service at a St. Louis church, came down off the altar and personally asked the governor to ``extend mercy'' to Mease, Carnahan said.

Mease was convicted of killing a former drug partner, Lloyd Lawrence, 69; his wife, Frankie Lawrence, 56; and their grandson, William Lawrence, 19, in May 1988. They were shot to death.

His Jan. 27 execution date was set last November by the state Supreme Court. Four days later, the court changed the execution date to Feb. 10. The court didn't give a reason, but many believed it was because the papal visit to St. Louis would coincide with the execution.

Carnahan announced his decision in Washington, defending it and insisting that it didn't bind him to any course of action in the future. The plea from the pope, under the ancient mosaics and soaring dome of the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica, created ``extraordinary circumstances,'' he said.

``I continue to support capital punishment, but after careful consideration of his direct and personal appeal and because of a deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all he represents, I decided last night to grant his request,'' Carnahan said.

``It was a very moving time, a very moving moment for me. It was one of those moments that one would never expect to happen in one's life,'' the governor said. ``And I felt that this response from me was appropriate.''

The commutation was a rare victory for the pope, who has failed in other attempts to block U.S. executions, most recently that of Karla Faye Tucker, who was put to death in Texas last year for two pickax killings.

John Paul praised the ``generous decision'' of the governor when he learned the news, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

Politicians, however, were shaking their heads at Carnahan's decision and its effect on the 86 men and one woman still on Missouri's death row.

``We have to wonder what the impact will be on future actions of death penalty cases and ... if this is a statement by the administration that all future capital punishments cases would be commuted,'' said David Klarich, a Republican state senator.

Others cited an apparent inconsistency: Since the pope also called for an end to abortion, would Carnahan, a steadfast backer of abortion rights, change his position on a late-term abortion ban that he has vetoed?

``If we're going to listen to the pope, we should listen to everything he says,'' said Senate Republican Leader Steve Ehlmann of St. Charles.

Jim Justus, who led Taney County's prosecution of Mease, said the inmate should have remained on death row.

``I'm disappointed with his decision, but I respect it,'' Justus said.

The state Department of Corrections had been trying for two months to track down relatives of Mease's victims, a standard practice prior to an execution, but hasn't been able to find anyone.

Little was known about Mease, now 52. His lawyer, Laura Higgins Tyler, said he served in Vietnam and was honorably discharged in 1967.

Mease gave a videotaped confession that he had hidden along a path near the Lawrences' farmhouse and shot them with a 12-gauge shotgun while they rode by on all-terrain vehicles. He later recanted.

Tyler said her client was ``awestruck'' when she telephoned him with the news of Carnahan's decision.

``Darrell has remained very steadfast to his faith in that he would receive relief from God,'' she said. ``I'd say this sure looks like a miracle to me.''