The facts in the Steven Staley are not in serious dispute. He and two other men entered a Steak and Ale restaurant in Fort Worth in 1989. They rounded up 30 customers and 6 restaurant’s employees, including its manager Robert Read. The trio threatened the customers/employees, took their possessions, and took the manager hostage as they tried to elude the police in a high-speed chase during which Read was shot in the head, chest and arm. A jury in 1991 convicted Staley of capital murder and a judge sentenced him to death. After his direct appeal remedies were exhausted, Staley was denied relief in two state habeas corpus proceedings. He has been on the state’s death row since his conviction.
Steven Staley is a dangerous convicted murderer that should never wallk the streets as a free man. Staley is also a paranoid schizophrenic who is profoundly mentally ill. During his more than two decades on death row, his chronic psychosis has worsened. Prison and jail officials have repeatedly tried to medicate him, but he has frequently refused treatment. In 2006, the trial court set his execution date for February. He was represented at the time by Fort Worth attorney Jack Strickland who filed a motion to stay the execution under the Texas “competency-to-be-executed” statute, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 46.05. This statute prohibits the execution of an inmate who is too mentally incompetent to understand the execution process. The trial court granted the stay and ordered Staley to be evaluated by medical experts.
The clinical and forensic psychologists who examined Staley definitively diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic. The following behavior exhibited by Staley over a 15 year period supported this clinical diagnosis:
• Self-inflicted wounds • Neglected personal hygiene • Covering himself with feces and urine • Irregular sleeping and eating habits • Refusing fluids and food • Delusions of paralysis • Lying in one spot in his cell so long as to rub a bald spot on back of his head • Spontaneously and refusing medication
The psychologists testified at a subsequent 2006 competency hearing that Staley did not exhibit this behavior when taking his medication, primarily “Haldol.” Hearing this evidence, the trial court withdrew its February 2006 execution date. At this juncture the State filed a motion seeking to have Staley involuntarily medicated to control his “psychosis.” Attorney Strickland opposed the motion, saying the “artificial competence” achieved through medication did not “constitute competence under the competency-to-be-executed statute, the federal Constitution, or the Texas Constitution.” The trial court granted the State motions, finding (as outlined in a 2013 Texas Court of Criminal Appeals opinion):
1. The State has a legitimate interest in enforcing the death sentence, 2. Medication is the least intrusive and, in fact, the only method of achieving competency, 3. Compelled medication is in Staley’s “best medical interest” because (a) without it, he will suffer “frightening delusions and general disorder within his mind” and (b) there is no evidence that he had suffered any side effects from the medication, and 4. Without medication, Staley posed a danger to himself and others.
For the next six years, Staley was forcefully medicated. Psychologists reported that although Staley still suffered from “delusional thoughts,” he was “under control” when he was in “60 percent compliance with the Haldol prescription.” In 2010, Strickland joined the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office and a new attorney, John Stickels, was appointed to represent Staley.
In 2012, the trial court conducted a second competency hearing under the “competency-to-be-executed” statute after it set a May execution date. State psychologists testified that despite a passing relapse in 2010, Staley was competent to be executed. They informed the court that Staley understood (as outlined by the appeals court) (1) that he was to be executed and that his execution was imminent and (2) the reason for his execution. These two factors, the State argued, satisfied the two-pronged standard for competency under Art. 46.05(h). The trial court agreed.
Stickels sought, and secured, a stay of execution from the Court of Criminal Appeals (May 2012). Last September, 2013, the appeals court issued a strongly worded opinion, finding that although Staley was competent to be executed when on “involuntary medication,” the trial court did not have the authority under the competency-to-be-executed statute to order such involuntary medication. Having reached this conclusion, the court elected to bypass two significant constitutional questions: 1) whether it is constitutional to execute an inmate whose competency has been achieved through forced medication; and 2) whether Staley is “functionally mentally retarded” sufficient to bar his execution.
Beyond what the appeals court did and did not do, the Staley case is interesting for a couple related reasons. First, the State and the trial court recognized that Staley is severely mentally ill. The State posited that he should be forcibly medicated to not only relieve him of the “suffering” caused by his psychosis—suffering the trial court described as “frightening delusions and general disorder within his mind”—but to achieve the competence necessary to carry out his execution. Put simply, forcibly medicating Staley would make him sufficiently competent to be executed and would end the overwhelming suffering caused by his psychosis.
The second interesting aspect of the Staley case is that it highlights the difference in treatment of the “mentally ill” and sane condemned inmates. The mentally ill are protected by the “competent-to-be-executed” statute while the sane enjoy no such protections. In effect, mental illness is rewarded and sanity is penalized. Why should it be constitutionally offensive to execute an inmate who speaks to Jesus in his toilet while it is constitutionally permissible to execute an inmate who tells the Warden “let’s do it?” The only way to remove this disparity, along with the multitude of growing moral and ethical objections, is to eliminate the death penalty completely and permanently.
As a final observation, let us firmly state one basic principle: we do not support forced medication of inmates under almost any circumstance, especially when it comes to forcibly medicating a condemned inmate so he can be executed.
It is obscene to treat condemned mentally-ill prisoners with strong psychotropic drugs like Haldol for the primary purpose of to propping them up for “competency” for execution.
In effect, the condemned inmate becomes a living, walking zombie; a piece of meat, “competently” hangng around, waiting for his date with the needle.
And that’s why we agree with the Court of Criminal Appeals: the purpose of the “competent-to-be-executed” statute is to determine whether a condemned inmate is competent to be executed, not to give legal authorities cover to forcibly medicate him to make him competent so he can be executed.
What have we become?