The State of Missouri executed Cecil Clayton last night without a hearing to determine his competency despite evidence that he suffered from severe mental illness, dementia, and intellectual disability related to his advanced age (he was 74) and the severe brain injury he sustained in a sawmill accident. The execution raises serious questions about the fairness and legitimacy of the death penalty and its imposition on mentally ill and disabled people.
Cecil Clayton was happily married, raising a family and working hard at his logging business when, in 1972, a large splinter of wood ricocheted off his saw blade and pierced his skull, destroying about 8 percent of his brain. Doctors had to remove a fifth of his frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and problem solving. The image above is a brain scan showing in the lower right section that, as his attorney put it, he “had – literally – a hole in his head.”
After the accident, Mr. Clayton’s marriage fell apart, he began drinking, was unable to work, his reading and writing skills dropped to third- and fourth-grade levels, and he started suffering from violent outbursts, hallucinations, paranoia, and other symptoms of mental illness. Two years after the accident, he checked himself into a mental hospital for more than a year because he was afraid he couldn’t control his temper.
Mr. Clayton was sentenced to death for the killing of police officer Christopher Casetter in 1996. Medical experts who examined Mr. Clayton in prison found that at age 74, he couldn’t care for himself, tried but couldn’t follow simple instructions, and was intellectually disabled with an IQ of 71. In January, a forensic psychiatrist reported that Mr. Clayton could not explain “the current status of his case, what has been done on his behalf and what fate awaits him.”
The Eighth Amendment bars the death penalty for people who are intellectually disabled, and forbids the execution of someone whose mental illness or disability prevents him from understanding why he is being put to death. Inmates facing execution are entitled to a competency hearing where evidence of mental incapacity can be heard and assessed by a court.
But on Saturday, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to deny Mr. Clayton a mental competency hearing before his execution. The majority found the evidence of Mr. Clayton’s brain damage and testimony from three psychiatrists who examined him wasn’t enough to hold a hearing on his competency to be executed.
After considering his appeal last night for more than three hours past the scheduled execution time, the United States Supreme Court denied a stay, although four justices would have granted a stay.
Four votes are required for the Court to hear a case; five are required to stay an execution. Traditionally, when four justices want to hear a death penalty case, a justice will provide the fifth vote necessary to stay the execution so that the review can proceed. But this is at least the second time this year that the Court has abandoned its “rule of five” and allowed an execution to go forward despite four votes to hear the case.
Originally scheduled for 6 p.m., the execution began at 9:13 p.m. and Mr. Clayton was pronounced dead at 9:21 p.m. He is the second person to be put to death this year by the State of Missouri, which executed a record-setting ten people in 2014.