Yesterday the State of Alabama executed Andrew Lackey for the tragic murder of an elderly World War II veteran. Mr. Lackey had Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, and family members describe him as living in “Andrew land” since he was an infant. The brutal crime he was convicted of revealed delusional thinking after compulsive video game playing and raised serious questions about his mental health. On Alabama’s death row, in addition to Asperger’s, Mr. Lackey clearly showed that he was suffering from mental illness which prison officials recognized and treated with psychotropic medications.
After a recent failed suicide attempt, Mr. Lackey asked the state to execute him. Despite these mental health problems, Alabama courts allowed Mr. Lackey to give up his appeals without a mental health examination to determine whether he was competent to seek his execution. At the last hearing in Mr. Lackey’s case, a family attorney intervened to help Mr. Lackey forfeit his appeals and obtain an execution date. The Court of Criminal Appeals refused to review papers filed by EJI seeking a complete mental health examination before permitting an execution.
There were serious questions about the legality of Mr. Lackey’s conviction and death sentence. One remand hearing had already been held concerning the jury that was selected to decide Andrew’s fate. Other questions about whether mental disability made a capital murder conviction in this case impermissible were never answered. It is clear that the tragic death of Charles Newman was committed by a disturbed 22-year-old suffering from serious mental health problems. Mr. Lackey’s execution was carried out by Alabama officials who can claim no such disability.
Alabama has the ability to humanely imprison and treat its mentally ill citizens who have committed violent crimes without killing them. And it certainly should require a mental health examination before permitting someone with Mr. Lackey’s history to give up their appeals. EJI staff worked with Mr. Lackey for several years and we believe that both Andrew and the people of Alabama in whose name he was executed deserved this case to be treated more thoughtfully.
It is easy to understand why there is anger and outrage about the murder of an honored elderly citizen who did nothing wrong. It is harder to understand how the premature execution of a mentally disabled person provides justice. EJI believes that the acceptability of capital punishment cannot be answered by simply asking whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. Rather, we believe a threshold question is whether we deserve to kill if our system of justice does not reliably or responsibly judge people disadvantaged by poverty or mental illness. Last night’s execution of Andrew Lackey strongly suggests that the answer to that question is “no.”