september 21, 2012
Each representing a different flaw in the application of capital punishment in America today:
Executed: 28 September 2011, aged 61
Flaw: Cruelty of prolonged stay on death row
The case: Valle, a Cuban national who was convicted of murdering a police officer in 1978, spent 33 years on death row. During that time he was held largely in solitary confinement – conditions that it has been argued amount to cruel and unusual punishment that should be banned under the eighth amendment of the US constitution.
The US supreme court judge, Justice Breyer, voted for a stay of execution for Valle but was outnumbered by his colleagues. Breyer wrote a minority judgment in which he said: “I have little doubt about the cruelty of so long a period of incarceration under sentence of death.”
Executed: 20 October 2011, aged 38
The case: Johnson was one of the few prisoners who are executed every year as “volunteers” – that is they choose to die and waive all rights to appeal or clemency. That may sound like their right to do so, but the problem is that academic studies have found that about 80% of the volunteers show signs of serious mental illness.
Johnson was no exception. His childhood was troubled with psychotic episodes and in prison he tried several times to kill himself. Yet his desire to be executed for having murdered in 2005 his six-month-old son was still taken by the justice system to be a sane expression of choice, and not as some experts decried a form of judicially approved suicide.
Executed: 8 February 2012, aged 38
Flaw: Mental illness
The case: You could tell that Turner had a history of mental illness just by looking at him – his face was terribly disfigured from a rifle bullet after he tried to shoot himself aged 18. His family also had a history of suicide attempts and hospitalisations for mental illness that ran through both his parents and his grandmother and great-grandmother.
There is no law in the US preventing executions for those who are mentally ill. Unless it can be proved they were insane at the moment they committed the crime, they are not exempt from the gurney.
Despite clear evidence that Turner was ill, he was put to death for fatally shooting a clerk in 1995 during a robbery.
Executed: 7 August 2012, aged 54
Flaw: Mental “retardation”
The case: Wilson was diagnosed as having learning difficulties – a condition still referred to by the US courts as “retardation”. He was recorded with an IQ score of 61, putting him in the lowest percentile of the population.
The US supreme court banned executions for people with learning difficulties in 2002. None the less, Wilson was still put to death for the 1992 murder of a police drug informant because his state, Texas, applies its own definition of “retardation” based on the character of Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men.
Execution: 8 August 2012, aged 51
Flaw: Childhood abuse
The case: Cook was executed for the horrendous strangulation murdersof two men, one aged 16, in 1987. Though there was no doubt about the heinousness of his crimes, his lawyers argued that Cook suffered such appalling abuse as a child that he should have been shown clemency in commuting his sentence to life in prison.
He was abused from infancy into his teenage years, including rape by his mother, step-father, foster parents, grandparents and the manager of a group home where he was resident. Expert witnesses testified at his appeal that he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse, leaving him prone to wild mood swings that could have been a factor behind the murders he committed.