The state of Texas executed Billy Joe Wardlow on July 8, 2020 for a 1993 East Texas robbery and murder. It was the state's first execution since the coronavirus swept through the state, reported the Texas Tribune.
In late appeals, Wardlow's lawyers argued that his death should be stopped because of the dangers presented by the rising pandemic and his young age at the the time of the crime. Neuroscientists and a group of Texas lawmakers also raised concerns with sentencing people who had committed crimes under 21 to death because of brain immaturity. All of Wardlow's appeals were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court just after 6 p.m., the scheduled time of execution.
Sitting in a holding cell, Wardlow was then taken into the Texas death chamber at a Huntsville prison, placed on a gurney and connected to an IV. His fiancee, lead attorney and two other friends stood nearby in another room, according a prison witness list. A friend of the murder victim was also present.
At 6:28 p.m, Wardlow was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital. He was pronounced dead 24 minutes later.
During Texas executions, witnesses for the inmate and the murder victim regularly stand closely together with prison officials, chaplains and reporters in separate but adjacent rooms. Because of the coronavirus — including active cases of infected inmates and employees at the prison housing the death chamber, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson said Tuesday that all witnesses would have their temperatures checked, be required to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. He did not say how that would be possible, citing security concerns. Twenty-six people were named on the witness list.
Wardlow, who declined to give a final statement in the death chamber, sent a letter last month to the parole board and spoke of how he changed during his quarter of a century on death row.
“I came to death row a scared boy who made poor choices; I will leave death row a man that others admire because I weathered the storms of life with the help of people that loved me,” Wardlow wrote the board. “We should all be so fortunate.”
Wardlow was 18 when he killed 82-year-old Carl Cole in Cason. Wardlow shot Cole during an attempted robbery in which he said he had planned to steal Cole’s truck to leave the rural town and start a new life with his girlfriend.
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Prosecutors argued Wardlow intentionally killed Cole, shooting him between the eyes. Wardlow said he hadn’t planned to fire the weapon and shot Cole during an unexpected struggle. After the killing, Wardlow and his girlfriend fled and were later arrested in South Dakota.
After 25 years on death row, Wardlow, aided by neuroscientists, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that at 18, he was too young to face Texas’ death penalty. Nearly 60 Texas lawmakers also informed the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which could recommend a delay to the execution, that they plan to take up the issue of age and the death penalty in the 2021 Legislature. But on Monday, the board voted against halting the execution until then.
The parole board also received letters from two jurors at his trial who said they now believe Wardlow should have gotten a life sentence based on new research.
“I have since that time … come to the conclusion that because of Mr. Wardlow’s youthful age at the time this crime was committed, we could not have predicted how he would turn out when he grew into adulthood,” Bob Seale wrote in a letter to the board after Wardlow’s legal team reached out to him.
Since 2005, the Supreme Court has held that death sentences are unconstitutional for those 17 or younger at the time of the crime because of their vulnerability, comparative lack of control and still-undefined identity. Some state and lower federal courts have questioned in recent years whether the upper limit of 18 is too young as new science emerges that shows the brains of people ages 18 to 20 are “functionally indistinguishable” from those of 17-year-olds in terms of moral culpability, according to Wardlow’s brief.
In a plea to stop his execution and invalidate his death sentence, Wardlow asked the high court to rule that the death penalty is unconstitutional for those under 21 — but just in Texas. That’s because a Texas death sentence requires a jury to unanimously agree that a person convicted of capital murder would likely be a future danger to society — a decision Wardlow’s attorney and a group of brain researchers said is impossible to make for an 18-year-old.
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