Friday, May 18, 2012

The Cautionary Instruction: Death without mercy

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
May 18, 2012

This week, Texas was on the verge of a momentous and very troubling state action. Steven Staley was scheduled for execution. The decision to carry out Staley’s execution stood to have significant implications for capital punishment jurisprudence.

In 1989, Staley escaped from a Colorado jail beginning a multi-state crime spree that culminated in the shooting death of a restaurant manager taken hostage during a Fort Worth robbery.

Texas is the most prolific agent of state-sponsored death. Texas is responsible for 482 of 1,295 executions carried out nationwide since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.  However, Texas’s 13 executions in 2011 are the lowest in 15 years. There are only 10 executions scheduled for 2012 and none was more important than Steven Staley.

Staley is a paranoid-schizophrenic. He is prone to delusions and has been observed in his cell spreading his feces on the floor while soaked in his own urine. In fact, Staley has a bald spot on the back of his head from lying catatonic on the cell floor.

At one point Staley was found not to be competent for purposes of execution. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court in Ford v. Wainwright, outlawed the execution of the “insane.”

Can a court provide medication to an incompetent death row prisoner to create artificial competence? The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals said “yes,” if the inmate takes the medication voluntarily. Staley had refused his medication.

In Staley’s case, state prosecutors argued that a judge can issue an order “forcing” Staley to be medicated. A judge agreed, “The state has an essential interest in ensuring that the sentence of this court is carried out.” On Monday, 48 hours before Staley’s execution, the Texas Court of Appeals stayed his execution.
Why is the outcome of Staley’s punishment so important for the future of the death penalty?

Last month, Connecticut became the 17th state to opt-out of the death penalty. In recent years New York, New Jersey and New Mexico also abolished the death penalty. California has put the issue on the ballot for this fall and Oregon’s governor has imposed a moratorium on carrying out executions.

The number of Americans who support the death penalty has fallen to a 30 year low.

The U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of those who have no rational understanding that death is imminent and why. Some inmates with serious mental illness may understand that they’re about to die -- but then so might a mentally retarded inmate, who the Supreme Court has declared ineligible for execution.
Capital punishment is on the decline.

The number of death sentences and the number of executions has tumbled. Public support for the death penalty has waned. A cruel and merciless execution of a seriously mentally ill inmate may be the rallying point for an already energized effort to strike down the death penalty once and for all.

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