He’s Too Mentally Ill To Execute. Why Is He Still On Death Row After 45 Years?

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Blume mentioned he might need fought to get Singleton out of solitary confinement on loss of life row, however determined in opposition to it. “I was worried about him being victimized in the general population due to his disability,” Blume wrote.

Legal battles over competency can final so lengthy that the prisoner finally ends up dying of different causes. Lawyers for James Frazier, the oldest particular person on Ohio’s loss of life row, had been arguing that the 79-year previous suffered from dementia and couldn’t be executed when he died in November, seemingly of COVID-19.

And then there’s Riles. Both he and his co-defendant—Herbert Washington—had been sentenced to die for capturing a automobile supplier who would not allow them to return a car Washington had purchased just a few days earlier. After a court docket overturned their convictions in 1977, Washington took a plea deal and was launched from jail in 1983. Riles went to trial and was once more sentenced to loss of life, regardless of his in depth psychiatric historical past.

His household informed the court docket that he had all the time been “a little funny” and generally prayed in different languages or referred to himself by different names. A choose from one other county attested that he’d had roughly a half-dozen members of the Riles household dedicated to psychological well being services through the years. That proof, mixed with repeated courtroom outbursts throughout Riles’s trial, was nonetheless not sufficient to win him an madness plea, partly as a result of prosecutors on the time mentioned his psychiatric historical past truly made him a better candidate for the death penalty.

But after he went to loss of life row, specialists repeatedly discovered that he was not match for execution. Even when he took the antipsychotic medicines he was prescribed, he nonetheless harbored weird spiritual delusions.

“He does not appear to have sufficient capacity to understand the criminal justice system,” one knowledgeable wrote in a 1987 competency evaluation. Riles informed the knowledgeable that he would “resurrect” and the world would acknowledge him because the Messiah and he could be “king of the world.”

Time and once more, psychiatric examiners discovered that he couldn’t be put to loss of life underneath the usual set by the Supreme Court case of Florida prisoner Alvin Ford in 1986. Ford generally referred to himself because the Pope or ranted about Ku Klux Klan conspiracies to bury prisoners. The court docket dominated that it violated the Constitution to execute somebody so mentally incompetent.

But the ruling did not demand that such folks be taken off loss of life row. Instead, so-called “Ford claims” grew to become a difficulty that condemned prisoners may elevate solely on the final minute, after an execution date was set. If a court docket stopped the execution, they’d not be resentenced to life; they’d simply be despatched again to loss of life row within the hope that they may sometime change into competent for execution. Instead, they linger on loss of life row, which in Texas and lots of different states means near-total isolation, exacerbating psychological well being issues.

“For many decades, there have been men marooned in prisons, mainly throughout the South, with death sentences that both sides know, under some sort of détente, will never be carried out,” mentioned Joseph Perkovich, a lawyer who has represented prisoners with psychological diseases in at the least 5 states.

The state of affairs could be fraught for protection attorneys, who should steadiness the psychological wellbeing of their purchasers in opposition to fears the prisoners can be killed in the event that they get nicely. “Death row is a horrible place to be as a human being,” mentioned Richard Burr, the lawyer who defended Ford within the Nineteen Eighties. “You realize that it’s cruel to have your client living there untreated, but also cruel to have them treated and restored to competence and possibly be executed.”

At the identical time, prosecutors have little incentive to push for execution dates and enter protracted fights within the courts.

“Sometimes you have tacit agreements between the parties that the best way to address this is to do nothing,” mentioned Robert Dunham, director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Usually, that form of settlement is not one thing attorneys speak about publicly, however in 2018, a annoyed North Texas lawyer did, after the district lawyer in Fort Worth set an execution date for a person with paranoid schizophrenia.

“He has been very psychotic to entirely, utterly out-there since about 1990,” Gregory Westfall said of his client, Emanuel Kemp. “It was agreed that he was too insane to execute. But since then, the leadership [at the district attorney’s office] has changed and now they have sought an execution date.”

At the time, Tarrant County prosecutors didn’t acknowledge any settlement concerning Kemp’s case, and the execution was later called off for unrelated causes. Kemp has now been on loss of life row for greater than three a long time.

Similarly, Clarence Jordan, who at one level believed he was Jesus Christ, has been going through execution in Texas since 1978. Syed Rabbani, who claimed to be a international diplomat working for the CIA and has repeatedly sued “all life forms in all galaxies” for torturing him, has been ready to be executed since 1988.

Harris County prosecutors acknowledged greater than 20 years in the past that Jordan and Rabbani didn’t qualify for execution due to their psychological state.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has said you can’t execute someone who is mentally incompetent, and we don’t,” former Harris County assistant district lawyer Roe Wilson informed the Austin American-Statesman in 1999. She mentioned if three psychological well being specialists deemed a prisoner incompetent, “we don’t proceed with an execution date.”

At the time, she informed the paper there have been 5 males in that holding sample. Decades later, three—Rabbani, Jordan and Riles—are nonetheless there.

“There’s just no real legal mechanism to reassess what should be done with those people,” mentioned Thea Posel, who represents Riles together with fellow lawyer Jim Marcus. “Our system just isn’t structured for that.”


Keri Blakinger is a workers author whose work has targeted on prisons and prosecutors. She beforehand coated legal justice for Houston Chronicle, and her work has appeared within the Washington Post Magazine, VICE, the New York Daily News and NBC News. She is the group’s first previously incarcerated reporter.

Maurice Chammah is a workers author whose guide, “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty,” gained the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright and H.F. Guggenheim fellow, he has reported on a spread of legal justice topics, together with jail circumstances, sheriffs, wrongful convictions, and artwork by incarcerated folks.

The Marshall Project is a nonpartisan, nonprofit information group that seeks to create and maintain a way of nationwide urgency concerning the U.S. legal justice system. We obtain this by award-winning journalism, partnerships with different information shops and public boards. In all of our work we try to coach and enlarge the viewers of people that care concerning the state of legal justice.