The Execution Of Cecil Clayton, A Brain-Damaged Man, Could Set A Dangerous Precedent For Missouri

Barring a reprieve from the Supreme Court, convicted cop-killer Cecil Clayton is scheduled to be executed in Missouri Tuesday evening. But Clayton is not your typical death row inmate: the 74-year-old endured brain damage more than 40 years ago in a sawmill accident, which dramatically changed his way of functioning. Although Clayton has been ruled competent by the Missouri Supreme Court, his lawyers believe it is illegal for the state to send a man with brain damage to the lethal injection chamber.

In 1972, Clayton reportedly lost a part of his frontal lobe — and around 8 percent of his brain — when a piece of wood penetrated his skull. His family members and attorneys say this accident left Clayton permanently intellectually impaired — and a completely changed man. According to The Atlantic's Matt Ford, his brother testified at the trial that, following the accident, Clayton was "unable to work and more prone to violent outbursts." His attorneys also made claims that Clayton suffered from depression, paranoia and hallucinations.

In 1996, Clayton was arrested for shooting and killing police officer Chris Castetter the night before Thanksgiving. The officer was responding to a domestic disturbance at the home of his then-girlfriend's mother, where Clayton drove to following an earlier argument at a local convenience store. Castetter was found still in his police car, a gunshot wound in his forehead.

Clayton was convicted and sentenced to death, even though psychiatric tests have determined his mental incompetency, his attorneys contend. "[N]ormally you have someone say he’s malingering or cheating on the test or making this up, and you just don’t have any of that here," one of Clayton's attorneys, Cynthia Short, told the Associated Press on Monday.

The appeal filed to the Missouri Supreme Court also reveals that an IQ test conducted in 1980 showed that Clayton had an overall IQ of 75. He was also reading at a fifth-grade level at the time. A few years later, a doctor diagnosed him with chronic brain syndrome with deteriorating mental functioning, court documents state.

But despite evidence of brain damage, his attorneys' push for clemency is not going so well. Over the weekend, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Clayton must be executed on Tuesday. The court concluded Clayton is fully aware of both his crime and the reason for his execution:

The deficiencies in Clayton’s evidentiary offerings are discussed below, but even if the Court gives them more weight than they are due, they show no more than what the District Court saw in 2006, i.e., a man who suffers from some cognitive impairment but who understands that he has been found guilty of killing Deputy Castetter and sentenced to death for that act. … Neither the fact that Clayton believes he should not have been convicted nor the fact that he believes he will be spared execution are sufficient to make a threshold showing that he is incompetent.
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However, the three dissenting justices found that Clayton's brain damage warranted him another competency hearing. "Mr. Clayton has a traumatic brain injury … and has presented reasonable grounds to believe his overall mental condition has deteriorated and he is intellectually disabled," the justices wrote.

They continued:

This Court, nonetheless, rushes to reject his request for a hearing before a special master at which he can attempt to prove his incompetency claim and his claim that he is intellectually disabled. The majority's decision to proceed with the execution at this time and in these circumstances violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
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The Supreme Court is now the last stop for Clayton, who has just hours before he enters into the lethal injection chamber. Despite the setbacks, his attorneys are still optimistic that the high court will find Clayton's execution cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. "I certainly think we have some strong reasons why the court ought to at least take another look at this case before Cecil dies," attorney Elizabeth Carlyle told Reuters.

Images: Getty Images (3), photo of Cecil Clayton/Missouri Department of Corrections