(Thanks to David Elliot at Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post -ed.)
Six years ago today the state of Texas executed an FBI agent, a state district judge, the president of Kenya and a war hero who commanded a nuclear-powered submarine during the Civil War. More aptly put, Texas executed a seriously mental ill inmate named Monty Allen Delk who, at varying times, believed he was all of these things.
Delk was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Gene “Bubba” Allen of Anderson County in East Texas. Although the state of Texas maintained that Delk was “malingering,” i.e., pretending to be mentally ill to stave off execution, the prison system’s former chief mental health officer stated that Delk suffered from a severe mental illness, one that had become progressive in nature since it was first noticed in 1989 –- years after Delk was tried and convicted.
A close examination of the Delk case reveals yet another significant flaw in the capital punishment system:
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing severely mentally ill inmates violates the U.S. Constitution.
The court also has held that a death row inmate must be mentally competent in order to drop his appeals.
But the court has not directly addressed the issue of whether a death row inmate must be mentally competent in order to pursue his state and federal habeas appeals. In fact, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over death penalty cases in Texas, have ruled that prisoner competence during state and federal habeas proceedings is not constitutionally required.
The question is fundamental to due process. Habeas is the first, last and often only avenue of appeal for death row inmates whose sentences have been upheld on direct appeal by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. But because Delk was unable to assist his attorney through his habeas appeals, he could not answer simple questions that were key to his case -– questions such as, did he commit the crime? Did he think his trial was fair? Did he think his trial lawyers adequately represented him? Were there circumstances about the crime or about his personal history that mitigated against a death sentence?
The fact that Delk’s execution was allowed to proceed represented a three-pronged failure on the part of Texas’ death penalty system. The first failure must be attributed to the courts, which failed to order a psychiatric evaluation of Delk, despite repeated requests by Delk’s very able attorney, John Wright of Huntsville.
The second failure lies with Texas’ executive clemency system. Because of his mental illness, Delk’s sentence should have been commuted to life in prison. Yet the Board of Pardons and Paroles as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry did nothing. (It is important to note that four days before Delk’s execution, the Georgia Parole Board, acting in a similar case, commuted death row inmate Alexander Williams sentence to life in prison after pleas from human rights activists. Williams is a chronic paranoid schizophrenic who thinks Sigourney Weaver is God and that little green frogs are in his prison cell, staring at him.)
The third failure rested with the Texas media. While Williams’ case attracted comprehensive media coverage in Georgia and beyond, newspapers in Texas largely failed to investigate Delk’s case. Government -– including the criminal justice system –- works best under the glare of public scrutiny. Absent such scrutiny, abuses occur. In this case, no one outside Texas’ fervent anti-death penalty community took much notice of Delk’s execution.
The good news is Texas’ newspapers are beginning to sit up and take notice. If I am not mistaken, every major Texas newspaper has called either for abolition of the death penalty or for a moratorium on executions. The issue of capital punishment has advanced from the margins to the mainstream. In today’s climate, one wonders whether Texas officials could get away with executing a person as severely mentally ill as Delk.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to directly confront the issue of whether a death-sentenced prisoner need be mentally competent during his habeas appeals. Until that happens, we simply will have to ask ourselves a key question:
Is executing someone who is so severely mentally ill he does not know who he is not the very definition of an insane act?