Today, April 6, 2020, the trial court granted the state’s motion to move Billy Joe Wardlow’s execution date from April 29 to July 8; it denied defense’s motion to withdraw the date. Both motions were based on the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the fourth execution scheduled by the State of Texas to be stayed or postponed due to the pandemic.
Billy Joe Wardlow was 18 years old when he killed 82-year-old Carl Cole at his home in rural Morris County during a botched attempt to steal Cole’s truck. He was sentenced to death in 1995 after his attorney failed to present significant mitigating evidence.
In November 2019, Wardlow filed a habeas writ (appeal) with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) that raises the question of whether a jury can make a reliable determination about the future dangerousness of someone who is 18 years old at the time of the crime. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that it is unconstitutional to impose a death sentence on individuals under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.
In an opinion piece published by the Austin American-Statesman, “Youth deserve second chances, not the death penalty,” victim survivor Linda White writes: “My own experience has shown me that individuals who commit heinous acts as youth are capable of change.” White’s 26-year-old daughter, Cathy, was brutally raped and murdered by two 15-year-old boys.
She points to an amicus brief filed in support of Wardlow by the Lone Star Justice Alliance on behalf of Texas-based researchers and professors with expertise in juvenile brain development and juvenile justice. According to these experts, modern neuroscience research has found that the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control, rational decision-making, and judgment are not fully developed until youth reach their mid 20s. White observes that “It is impossible to predict whether a young person will be dangerous in the future. In fact, the research shows that the vast majority of young people simply age out of criminal behavior.”
In an important article published last December in American Scholar, Lincoln Caplan notes that in the 25 years Wardlow has spent on death row, “he has become in middle age a trusted, peacemaking, and in many ways exemplary inmate.” For Caplan, “Wardlow stands out as someone the legal system has wronged repeatedly, especially in deciding his punishment.”
Six execution dates remain pending in Texas through early September