Mississippi Man Back on Death Row, Mental Evaluation Ordered


JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated the death sentence of an inmate convicted of killing a prison guard.

Justices also ordered a state circuit court judge to hold another hearing on the mental capacity of Willie C. Russell , who came within hours of being executed more than two decades ago.

Russell, now 57, was convicted in the 1989 killing of Argentra Cotton, a guard at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where Russell was imprisoned for armed robbery, escape and kidnapping convictions in Hinds County.

A federal appeals court blocked the execution in January 1997 after Russell claimed he didn’t have a lawyer to appeal his death sentence. Russell later claimed he was intellectually disabled and could not be executed.

Sunflower County Circuit Judge Betty W. Sanders agreed and overturned the death sentence, and Russell remained in prison. On Thursday, justices said Sanders should have heard more testimony.

A majority of justices wrote that Russell underwent psychological testing in 2006 in an aggravated assault case, but he never underwent an assessment of intellectual disability.

In 2014, Sanders denied the state’s request for Russell to be evaluated for intellectual disability, saying the previous testing was sufficient. Five of the nine justices said Thursday that the judge conducted a “one-sided” hearing about Russell’s mental capacity before she overturned his death sentence.

However, four justices wrote a dissent, saying Russell had undergone enough psychological testing in 2006, and results of those tests could be used to determine whether he has an intellectual disability.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who has intellectual disabilities.

Sanders is retired from the bench. A majority of justices said Thursday that an expert chosen by the state must be allowed to evaluate Russell before a circuit judge holds new hearing about his mental capacity.

 

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