The Supreme Court of the United States has made itself clear: The government may not execute people with severe mental disabilities.
Missouri law is also clear. It reads: "No person condemned to death shall be executed if as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks capacity to understand the nature and purpose of the punishment about to be imposed…"
Yet today, at 6 p.m. local time, the state of Missouri will execute Cecil Clayton, a man who 43 years ago suffered a devastating accident in which a section of his brain "the size of a fist" was damaged and had to be removed. Reports The Guardian:
A man who before [the accident] occurred had been a teetotal devoted husband and father of five, who preached and sang the gospel in his own ministry, developed severe memory loss and despair, sank into alcoholism and split from his wife, had hallucinations and displayed bouts of violent rage.
He has the reading ability of a nine-year-old, has visual and auditory hallucinations in which he is convinced that he is accompanied by a man and a woman wherever he goes, is incapable of simple tasks such as ordering food from the prison commissary, and is under the delusion that he will never be executed because God will intervene and free him so that he can return to his preaching and gospel singing.
Three forensic psychologists have spent time with Clayton in multiple visits spanning 2005 to this year, and have unanimously and consistently concluded that he is entitled to constitutional protections because of his mental incompetence.
This is not a question of guilt—no one denies that Clayton shot to death a police officer in 1996. This is a question of competency, and whether we ought to be in the business of putting to death people suffering from mental illness or disability so severe they are unable to care for themselves without assistance. (One of the psychologists who evaluated Clayton said just that about the level of his intellectual functioning.) The Court has ruled that doing so violates the Eighth Amendment, but it also left states to determine what's meant by severely mentally ill—and the state of Missouri is refusing to acknowledge that the category applies in this case.
There is some precedent for that decision. In 1992, a convicted cop killer, Rickey Ray Rector, was executed in Arkansas. Rector had sustained the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that left him with a "dim simplicity" and little awareness of his situation. Then–Gov. Bill Clinton, intent on being seen as tough on crime, nevertheless left the campaign trail to fly home and sign the death warrant himself.
Rector's was the last execution in this country of someone missing part of his or her brain. That may change tonight.
Back in December, I wrote about the growing opposition among conservatives to capital punishment—especially in cases where the person to be put to death is clearly mentally unsound. Back then, a catalog of conservative leaders signed on to a letter urging Texas Gov. Rick Perry to commute the sentence of another mentally ill inmate, Scott Panetti. The pressure appeared to work, with the courts ordering a last-minute stay of execution.
No such effort has materialized this time around. Despite the gaping hole in Clayton's brain scan, the conservative leaders who months ago were so troubled by what was about to happen in Texas seem unmoved by what will happen hours from now in Missouri.
See Reason TV's recent video The Battle for Death Penalty Transparency here: