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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Why Is It So Easy for States to Execute the Mentally IIl?

Derrick Charles
Derrick Charles
LONG BEFORE HE COMMITTED a vicious triple murder in Houston at the age of 19, Derrick Charles had shown signs of serious mental problems. Raised amid crippling poverty, domestic abuse, alcoholism and neglect, he watched his schizophrenic mother stab his abusive stepfather. He suffered from tactile and auditory hallucinations, and by the time he was 13, had been hospitalized twice for mental illness. While in juvenile prison for nonviolent offenses, he said he was hearing voices and asked for medication. The request was denied.

Then, in July 2002, while high on marijuana laced with PCP, Charles beat and strangled his 15-year-old girlfriend, Myeshia Bennett, and her 77-year-old grandfather, Obie, then beat, strangled, and sexually assaulted Bennett’s mother, Brenda. He confessed to police, saying he didn’t know why he’d done it.

None of Charles’s lengthy and troubling history was investigated by his defense attorneys or presented at trial. Unaware of his documented mental illness — among mitigating evidence that would lessen his culpability for the crime — the Texas jury sentenced Charles to die.

Charles was executed last week, on May 12, at the age of 32. His death by lethal injection went largely undiscussed, despite the compelling evidence of his mental illness. Yet it is far from clear that his execution was a legal one — whether Charles was so mentally ill that he was in fact incompetent to die at the hands of the state.

The Charles case is not unique. It follows closely on the heels of other questionable executions of prisoners with mental problems. In January, the first execution of the year was Georgia’s killing of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness prior to his killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in 1998. And in March, Missouri executed Cecil Clayton, a man who was missing 20 percent of his brain’s frontal lobe — the brain’s center for impulse control, problem solving and social behavior.

There is no outright ban on executing the mentally ill. While the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of the intellectually disabled and of juveniles, populations it deems so vulnerable that their execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, there has been no such determination when it comes to people with mental illness. Rather, the court has said only that the “insane” may not face execution, leaving the measure of insanity up to to the states. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that in order for a prisoner to be considered competent for execution, he or she must have a rational understanding of the state’s reason for killing him or her.

This notion of “competency” is the sole measure for defining what role mental illness might have played in the commission of a crime — from arrest through conviction and to execution.


Source: The Intercept, Jordan Smith, May 20, 2015

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