Supreme Court's Denial Of Death Row Appeal Is Wrong

| by Nicholas Roberts
Supreme CourtSupreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court denied the appeal of convicted Texas killed Adam Ward, 33, roughly two hours before he was executed on March 22. Ward was on death row for shooting and killing 46-year-old code enforcement officer Michael Walker during a 2005 argument outside of Ward's home.

Ward's killing of Walker, who was unarmed at the time, earned him a death sentence and 11 years on death row.  Although Ward was undeniably responsible for the murder -- he shot Walker nine times at several ranges, reports Reuters -- he also perfectly fits the description of someone who was clearly mentally ill at the time he committed the crime, which is an argument his lawyers have made repeatedly.  

The denial of an appeal in his case showcases the direction the U.S. is going in its treatment of mentally ill people who have committed crimes, and it's not a good one.

Walker was originally called to Ward's home in Commerce, Texas, to take pictures of a heap of garbage piled up outside the house. Ward's father has been described as a "hoarder" and the family has received multiple housing and code violation citations in the past, Newsweek reports.

Ward's various responses in relation to the 2005 events seem to bolster the idea he had some type of mental illness. He first created a video shortly after the shooting in which he said he believed Walker had been spying on him and his father for a long time.

He maintained his position that the shooting was "self-defense" -- even though it was clearly not -- in February when he told The Associated Press: "Only time any shots were fired on my behalf was when I was matching force with force. I wish it never happened, but it did, and I have to live with what it is."

Clearly, Ward was not matching "force with force" in any sense, because Walker was "armed" with a cellphone and nothing more. But this is where the need for an objective, sober, third-party analysis to determine whether or not Ward was truly delusional or if he was putting on an act, and where the acceptance of an appeal might have come closer to the truth on the matter.

As Vanderbilt law professor Christopher Slobogin points out: "Why would you go out and shoot an officer just because he was taking pictures of your home? There has to be some, to use a layman’s term, craziness there."

On the other hand, Slobogin highlights that on death row, mental illness is something that is perceived as being easily faked.

"There’s also this intuition which many people have that people with mental illness are much more dangerous than the average individual. There’s much more sympathy towards people with intellectual disability than there is towards people with schizophrenia. People are much more scared and fearful of people with mental illness."

The environment in which Ward was living -- with his father who was reportedly a hoarder, and who also hoarded guns -- is certainly not one that many people would be surprised may have either fostered or had been a reflection of mental illness.

But since Ward's case was denied appeal, we will never know the full truth about the degree of his mental illness and what role it may have played in convincing Ward to carry out the gruesome act. Certainly, many observers are pleased with the result, given the senselessness and brutality of Ward's crime.

But the fact that we seem to have largely stopped wondering about where that "senselessness" originates from seems to portend hardening attitudes towards mentally ill people charged with crimes. Given the number of people with mental illnesses within the criminal justice system, this is not a promising sign.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Newsweek, Reuters via The Huffington Post / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons