There was an execution in Texas on Sept. 25. While that’s nothing unusual on its own – Texas has carried out almost two-thirds of all executions in the country this year – this one was especially questionable and highlights specifically why capital punishment is a dangerously faulty institution. The prisoner, Michael Wayne Richard, was convicted of raping and murdering a nurse in 1986. He was a terrible man with little remorse. However, the many things that went wrong in his execution process have sparked debate and controversy. If this is truly how the process works, then it can easily swallow up innocent people, and it is a disgrace that such a system still exists in our country.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a prisoner who is mentally retarded. Richard had a documented IQ of 64 – any number less than 70 typically legally denotes mental retardation. Since the 2002 ruling, repeated attempts by the defense team to suspend the execution on grounds of Richard’s mental retardation have been denied.
Then, on Sept. 25, just hours before Richard’s execution, the defense team thought it had caught a break. The Supreme Court announced that it would review a Kentucky case about whether using a particular three-drug cocktail for lethal injection causes pain and should be classified as “cruel and unusual punishment.” The defense raced to file an appeal to suspend the execution until the Kentucky case was decided, but it was delayed by glitches in its computer system.
The defense notified the Texas attorney general of its computer problems and pleaded for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stay open a little past 5 p.m. to allow the team to submit the appeal. That request was denied, and the defense was given just six minutes to file its final appeal to the Supreme Court. The judge responsible for denying the extension is now being sued, but that would be little consolation if an innocent person was executed because of such arbitrary decisions.
Texas overlooked court precedent on executing a mentally retarded person, and it chose to discount a pending court case that could make Richards’s execution unconstitutional on other grounds. This should come as no surprise for a state that mass produces executions, to the tune of more than 400 since 1976. Regardless of whether Richard was guilty or innocent, a judicial system with this many problems cannot be trusted to condemn anyone to death. The criminal justice system is a human institution, and it will make mistakes. Thus, no sentence should be as final as death.
In 2000, then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan recognized the fallibility of the death penalty, suspending executions in his state indefinitely after he noticed that more death sentences were overturned than carried out in the state. But the problem doesn’t only exist in Illinois. From 1973 to 2007, 124 people have been released from death row nationwide after being acquitted, having their charges dropped or receiving a pardon based on new evidence. These were 124 people wrongfully waiting to die.
What about all of the other people who didn’t get released at the last minute? The Richard case shows that the flaws in our court systems could very well lead to sentencing a wrongly convicted prisoner to death. With even one wrongful execution, our courts have undeniably committed murder. Exactly who can we hang for that?