“Nobody is questioning whether people who commit some of the most serious offenses should be held accountable,” said Rob Smith, executive director of the project, which seeks to create a fair and accountable justice system.
“The question is, do people who are among the most broken, vulnerable and impaired in our society deserve the death penalty,” he said, as opposed to life without parole.
Two of the eight were granted stays on their executions, but six of the men’s fates are still being fought in the courts.
Another judge in Arkansas effectively stopped the executions Friday night, citing concerns over the lethal injection method. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen issued a temporary restraining order stopping the state from using a certain drug for lethal injections. The supplier of the drug argued the medication wasn’t supposed to be used for capital punishment.
The Arkansas attorney general has appealed the restraining order and vowed to appeal the federal injunction.
Should the state prevail and move forward, the executions would start Monday night.
Of the inmates who were still scheduled to die this month, one has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, another has suffered with hallucinations, two have IQ levels indicative of intellectual impairment, and most have experienced severe abuse, according to the Fair Punishment Project’s report.
Each of the Arkansas inmates who were scheduled for execution this month has been convicted of murder, and most have been on death row for a couple of decades.
The state’s supply of midazolam, a controversial drug meant to sedate inmates during lethal injections, will expire at the end of April. And Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in an earlier statement to CNN it is his “duty” to “carry out these lawful sentences imposed by juries and upheld by the Arkansas Supreme Court” before it’s too late.
The Eighth Amendment “bans cruel and unusual punishment,” said Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s senior legal analyst. “Part of the issue of who can be executed is whether they can understand why they’re being executed. … If you don’t understand why you’re being punished, the death penalty doesn’t serve the purpose it’s supposed to serve.”
While “the vast majority of those on death row are poor and ignorant and mentally damaged in one way or another,” Toobin said, “the general rule is mental illness does not get you out of being executed; only mental retardation does. But the lines around those conditions are not extremely clear.”
• Don Davis was supposed to be put to death Monday night. On two IQ tests he took as a child, Davis scored a 69 and a 77, signaling intellectual impairment, court documents show. He also suffered a serious head injury and, coupled with his low IQ level and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, experiences ” ‘double deficits’ in cognitive functioning,” the report states. Soon after his birth, both his parents abandoned him. Davis “never received a comprehensive mental health evaluation by an independent expert,” the report found. He has spent more than 25 years on death row.
• Serious mental illnesses have plagued Jack Jones since childhood, the project’s review of documents showed. He endured paralyzing hallucinations and, at times, would be found rocking and banging his head against cupboards. He was abused by his father and abducted and raped by three strangers. He attempted suicide twice before he finally got psychiatric attention. He committed himself to a hospital for severe depression and suicidal ideation just months before he committed murder — and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder not long before his crime. The jury heard “almost none of this,” the report states. Jones was scheduled to die April 24.
• Marcel Williams’ first experience with sexual abuse was when his mother offered him up to a friend when he was just 9 or 10, legal documents show. Starting at 12, his “‘mother was routinely pimping him … in exchange for food stamps, for food, for a place to stay'” to women 10, 20, 30-plus years older than him, the report quotes. He was gang-raped while in an adult prison where he served time as an adolescent. He was beaten severely and regularly by his mother, who once burned him with an electric coil. He was raised in abject poverty and didn’t always have shoes. A judge reversed his death sentence because Williams’ history wasn’t presented to a jury, but an appellate court reinstated the sentence. Williams also was set to die April 24.
• Kenneth Williams has an IQ of 70, a history of “neuropsychological problems” and “severe learning disabilities,” testimonies showed. He bounced between six foster homes and often wasn’t adequately fed. His own parents abused drugs, and he endured physical abuse. Evidence suggests that he’s suffered brain damage, having exhibited a tremor, deficient motor skills and problems with memory. He has trouble focusing or comprehending what he reads or hears and has shown deficiencies when it comes to reasoning and judgment. He began smoking marijuana at 6 and turned to beer by 9 — the same age he was when he was first institutionalized in the juvenile system. Kenneth Williams was set to die April 27.
• The review of records for Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson, both of whom were scheduled to die Thursday, show inadequate legal representation, the report found. In the case of Johnson, whose conviction was based in part on the inconsistent testimony of a 6-year-old girl, there remain questions about his guilt, the report said. A claim that Lee is intellectually disabled was introduced at one point, the report showed, but the federal defender who introduced that was removed from the case. No evidence exists that Johnson’s lawyers ever looked at his life history.
But the Fair Punishment Project’s report found that McGehee has bipolar disorder, which went untreated when he was a child, and has shown evidence of brain damage and frontal lobe impairments. He was abused by his father, his mother and later his stepfather — who kicked McGehee’s dog to death while forcing McGehee to watch. “Jason was never the same after that,” his aunt said in a court petition, though none of this was presented during his trial.
On Friday, the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay of execution for Bruce Ward, who was the first scheduled to die Monday night.
According to the Fair Punishment Project report, he didn’t understand what was coming. He believed he was about to set off on a “special mission as an evangelist,” according to a complaint cited in the report. He told a forensic psychiatrist in 2010 he hears voices, he gets revelations directly from God and he will “walk out of prison to great riches and public acclaim.” He said he’s been visited in prison by his deceased father and “resurrected dogs.” It’s believed that mental illness runs in Ward’s family.
He was 4 when his mother had a mental breakdown. She beat him regularly, put tar on him before submerging him in ice-cold water and forced him as a young boy to sleep naked beneath water that dripped through a leaking roof.
“We are grateful that the Arkansas Supreme Court has issued a stay of execution for Bruce Ward so that they may consider the serious questions presented about his sanity,” Ward’s attorney, Scott Braden, said in a statement Friday evening. “His nearly three decades in solitary confinement have only worsened his severe mental illness.”