Last week, a Brazos County judge deemed Marcus Druery incompetent to be executed due to evidence of his severe mental illness. Prosecutors did not contest the decision, but the court left the option open for Druery to be re-examined in the future if prosecutors feel there has been a change in his mental capacities, according to the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
According to KBTX.com, two court-appointed psychiatrists agree Druery suffers from mental illness that leaves him unable to understand why he is being punished. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Ford v. Wainwright that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who does not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment. The Ford decision left the determination of competency for execution up to each state, however, and it has not prevented the execution of scores of offenders diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illnesses.
In October 2013, in a unanimous decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) ruled that Druery was entitled to a hearing to determine his mental competency to be executed. The CCA granted Druery a stay just days before his scheduled execution on August 1, 2012; he was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2002 murder of Skyler Browne in rural Brazos County.
It is extremely rare for an individual on death row in Texas to be deemed incompetent to be executed. The Texas Legislature did not even establish a statute governing the process to determine competency to be executed until 1999, and the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution.
Recently, however, the Fifth Circuit granted a stay of execution to Texan John Battaglia to give his attorneys more time to develop claims he may be mentally incompetent for execution. The Fifth Circuit also stayed the execution of Scott Panetti on December 3, 2014 to further review issues surrounding his competency.
In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Panetti vs. Quarterman, the Justices ruled that “the Fifth Circuit’s incompetency standard is too restrictive to afford a prisoner Eighth Amendment protections.” At issue is the distinction between the prisoner’s “awareness” versus “rational understanding” of why she/he is to be executed.
Mental illness can impact a defendant’s ability to communicate effectively with his/her attorney, participate in legal proceedings, make rational decisions, or behave appropriately in a courtroom. It also can impact his/her ability to assist with appeals.
At least 25 individuals with documented diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other persistent and severe mental illnesses have been executed by the State of Texas. Many had sought treatment before the commission of their crimes, but were denied long-term care.
The American Bar Association, The American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Alliance on Mental illness have adopted a recommendation calling for a prohibition on the death penalty for those with severe mental disorders or disabilities. Numerous mental health organizations in Texas also have condemned the execution of offenders with severe mental illness.