Why States Don't Agree On Mentally Ill Executions

After the Supreme Court rejected last-minute appeals by his attorneys, Derrick Charles was executed by the state of Texas Tuesday, the seventh man to be put to death in the state this year, according to The Associated Press. Charles, 32, was pronounced dead at 6:36 p.m. local time. The execution was long contested, with Charles' attorneys claiming he suffered from a mental illness that dated back to his childhood years. They also argued he was mentally incompetent and may not have even understood why he was being executed, the AP reported.

One of his attorneys, Paul Mansur, said in a statement they were disappointed in the Supreme Court's failure to intervene, which would have allowed them more time to get Charles evaluated by mental health professionals.

While the Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute the insane — those people without a rational understanding of why they are being executed — it is a hollow promise without resources and evaluation.

Charles was convicted in the 2002 killings of his 15-year-old girlfriend Myiesha Bennett, her mother Brenda Bennett, 44, and her grandfather Obie Bennett, 77. Their bodies were discovered in their home in Houston. Charles pleaded guilty in 2003 to capital murder charges in all three deaths.


The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that executions of "intellectually disabled" people were a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. That ruling left it up to states to interpret what "intellectually disabled" meant and who would fall under its definition. Last year, the Supreme Court narrowed the conditions of who could be considered intellectually disabled so states could not consider IQ scores as a deciding factor. Instead, states were required to offer other evidence to show the person was mentally fit to be executed.

In January, Georgia executed Warren Hill though seven different medical experts — some appointed by the state — determined Hill was mentally impaired, according to The Guardian. Hill was convicted of murdering a fellow inmate while serving a life sentence for the 1985 murder of his girlfriend, Myra Wright. The state of Georgia required Hill's attorneys prove his mental impairment "beyond a reasonable doubt," which legal experts told The Guardian was nearly impossible. That standard is unique to Georgia.

The state of Missouri in March executed Cecil Clayton, who was convicted of fatally shooting a police officer in 1996. Clayton had a portion of his brain removed in 1974 after an accident, which led to violent behavior he claimed he could not control, The Washington Post reported. But the state of Missouri said Clayton understood why he was being executed, and that any mental problems would have had to exist prior to his turning 18 in order to make him ineligible for execution, according to NBC News.


Right now it's up to states to decide who is fit to execute, but there should be more federal oversight particularly when it comes to defining mental illness. Although the Supreme Court has tightened rules about executing the mentally ill, there is still too much latitude for who is or isn't fit to be put to death. SCOTUS has revisited its 2002 definition before, and there might still be a need to reevaluate what exactly "intellectually disabled" means.

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