Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mentally Ill Co-Conspirator to be Executed in Texas

In the news this morning is an article discussing the next planned execution in Texas. Aside from the fact that there is already much controversy surrounding the death penalty, this case is causing greater debate as: (1) the prisoner in question did not actually kill anybody, and was only a co-conspirator to the murders giving rise to his execution; and, (2) the prisoner in question is mentally ill.

Texas is one the few states in the country that allows the execution of conspirators to commit murder, whether they actually take an active role in the murder or not. Those in support of this policy claim that the execution of conspirators deters crime and allows closure for a victim’s family. However, those opposing this policy claim that executing a person who has not actually killed anybody “violates the most basic principles of justice.”

As to the other controversy, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally ill prisoners in 1986, disallowing the execution of anybody who was not fully aware of the reasoning for their punishment. However, the Supreme Court never established rules in how to determine a prisoner’s mental competency; as such, such decisions in Texas are left to the governor or jury on a case-by-case basis.

With the combination of these two factors, this case becomes even more problematic. Many are arguing that without this mental illness, this prisoner would never have been convinced to take part in this conspiracy. Aside from not understanding the reasoning for his punishment, many claim that he never actually had free choice in his initial participation. However, even after this theory was argued in the court, the prisoner was found guilty and was sentenced to be executed.

To not account for the propensity of mentally ill conspirators to be more suggestible than other conspirators when issuing a death sentence seems to punish a person for something they did not understand, or basically had no choice in doing. Depending on the level of mental illness, this suggestibility will vary, and such variation should play a part in determing the severity of the sentence when a jury or Judge issues a judgment, especially when execution is one of the options.

With the failure to establish guidelines for determining when a mentally ill prisoner can and cannot be declared competent for the purposes of their execution, this decision is left in the hands of those who may not be qualified to make this judgment. Whether it be the jury or the presiding judge or somebody in the local government, they most likely are not able to make psychological evaluations. In fact, these individuals most likely have very minimal contact with the accused, and in these situations they only have the opportunity to make judgments on what they hear in the court proceedings.

I cannot make a judgment on whether this execution is proper or not by merely reading this article. I cannot make a definite judgment on whether the proper tests and analysis were performed in order to determine this prisoner’s competency because the article does not indicate how this competency was established, if in fact it was established. The only thing I can feel somewhat comfortable in concluding is that if there were established procedures, including a separate set of guidlines for when the mentally ill person is a conspirator and not an overt actor, issued by the Supreme Court or the government, then there would still be controversy, but at least everybody would have guidelines to refer to when making these difficult decisions.

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