The Execution of Steven Staley: Forcible Medication on Death Row in Texas.
Can the state force a person to take drugs in order to execute him? That is the grisly question raised by the case of Steven Staley, a convicted murderer who believes polygraph machines are controlling and torturing him. Even though he’s psychotic, Staley is scheduled to be executed next week, based on a judge’s order requiring him to take medication he has refused. If Texas actually goes ahead with this deeply disturbing plan, it will be the first state, as far as I can tell, to drug someone in order to carry out a death sentence. That is a distinction that no one on the planet should want to have.
Here are the facts of Staley’s crime: In September 1989, he escaped from a Denver jail and went on an armed robbery spree, hitting up nine businesses in four states. The last one was the Steak and Ale Restaurant in Tarrant County, Texas. Just before closing, Staley and two friends came in, and Staley herded the employees into a kitchen storeroom and made manager Robert Read open the cash registers and the safe. He then took Read as a hostage, forced him into the back of a car, and shot him dead during a high-speed chase by the police.
And here are the facts of Staley’s mental illness: He has a long history of paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Staley was abused as a child by his mother, who was also mentally ill; when he was 6 or 7 she tried to pound a wooden stake through his chest. His father was an alcoholic. Staley tried to kill himself as a teenager. Doctors who have examined Staley on death row have said that he talks in a robot-like monotone yet has “grandiose and paranoid” delusions, including the beliefs that he invented the first car and marketed a character from Star Trek. He has given himself black eyes and self-inflicted lacerations and has been found spreading feces and covered with urine. Medicated with the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, Staley complained of paralysis and sometimes appeared to be in a catatonic state. He has worn a bald spot on the back of his head from lying on the floor of his cell.
Staley was found competent to stand trial back in 1991. The standard is low: A defendant has to be able to understand the charges against him and consult rationally with his lawyer so he can aid in his own defense. The standard for competency at execution was set by Ford v Wainwright, a 1986 case in which the Supreme Court said that the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment forbids execution of the “insane.” Indeed, at the time no state permitted such an execution. The court quoted British judges in the 17th century worrying about the “miserable spectacle” of “extream inhumanity and cruelty” presented by executing a “mad man.” It served no retributive purpose, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, to execute a person “who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out.” He also noted “the natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity.”