A death in Texas

 

A DECADE AGO the US supreme court ruled that the mentally impaired “should be categorically excluded from execution” because of “their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses.” On Tuesday the state of Texas decided for the tenth time to exercise the discretion allowed by the Atkins v Virginia ruling to examine claims of mental impairment to determine for itself a death row inmate’s degree of capacity, and it executed Marvin Wilson. The supreme court declined to intervene.

Wilson’s IQ had been assessed several times at over the benchmark line of 71, and once, by what the state argued was an inexperienced tester, at 61. The state has argued that it had leeway under the ruling also to consider other subjective factors. These include his ability to lead and to lie, and whether family and friends thought he was mentally impaired. His lawyers contend the discretion undermines the thrust of the ruling and that Texas alone uses such non-clinical criteria.

The state has conducted roughly three out of every eight executions since 1976, when the supreme court allowed the practice to resume after a four-year hiatus. Wilson was the seventh person executed by lethal injection in Texas this year. Nine other prisoners in the state have execution dates in the coming months.

Wilson (54) was sentenced to death in April 1994 for the murder of a 21-year-old police drug informant, Jerry Robert Williams, a few days after police seized 24 grams of cocaine from Wilson’s apartment and arrested him.

He was executed under a new state procedure using a single dose of the sedative pentobarbital following shortages arising from the refusal of a European supplier under pressure from death penalty opponents to supply another drug, sodium thiopental, that had previously been used as part of a three-drug cocktail. Danish suppliers of pentobarbital now say they will not supply the drug for execution use, a refusal which the EU, strongly opposed to the death penalty, should enshrine in community law as an export ban.

Unfortunately, Texas has enough in stock for another 22 executions. Four other states – Arizona, Idaho, Ohio and Washington – have also used a single drug to carry out executions, but death penalty opponents claim single-drug executions may be less humane. They point to an April execution in Arizona, where an inmate shook for several seconds after receiving a lethal dose of pentobarbital. Europe should act quickly to cut off the executioners’ supply of the drug.

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