The State of Alabama executed Christopher Johnson today, despite serious questions about his mental competency, the fairness of his trial, and the lack of meaningful appellate review.
Mr. Johnson was convicted of killing his infant son in 2005. His attorneys attempted to present a defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, but mid-way through his trial, Mr. Johnson asked the trial judge for permission to represent himself. Despite Mr. Johnson’s history of mental illness, the judge allowed him to represent himself. While doing so, Mr. Johnson asked the jury and judge to sentence him to death.
At his sentencing hearing, the judge found that Mr. Johnson was placed in numerous psychiatric hospitals throughout his childhood and was prescribed anti-psychotic medications. He also exhibited behavior associated with mental illness: while awaiting trial, he refused to bathe, slammed his head against the wall of his cell, and attempted suicide by eating toilet paper. Despite this evidence, the trial judge sentenced Mr. Johnson to death.
Mr. Johnson continued to represent himself after his conviction. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Johnson’s death sentence and permitted him to waive the remainder of his appeals. There has been no state or federal postconviction review in the case because the state did not appoint an attorney to represent Mr. Johnson for those proceedings. The Alabama Supreme Court scheduled his execution without ever engaging in meaningful review of his case.
The United States Supreme Court has held that the execution of someone who is not mentally competent is unconstitutional. Yet legal scholars who study the death penalty have found that more than 75% of death row inmates who “volunteer” for execution by waiving their appeals suffer from documented mental illness. In Mr. Johnson’s case, no court has evaluated his competency to be executed.
In addition to questions about his mental competency, the jury in Mr. Johnson’s case never heard about the circumstances of his life. Mr. Johnson was sexually molested by his uncle from age seven to twelve. He was exposed to alcohol at age twelve and drugs at age sixteen. Throughout his childhood, he was placed in programs for children with severe mental and behavioral problems. He did not finish high school and was homeless for part of his adult life. The Supreme Court has held that death sentences imposed without consideration of mitigating circumstances are inherently unreliable.
Mr. Johnson’s execution raises serious questions about the administration of the death penalty in Alabama. He was the sixth person to be put to death by the state this year. Alabama has the nation’s highest per capita death sentencing and execution rates.