Supreme Court Wisely Avoids Death Penalty Case


With the Innocence Project exonerating death row inmates, the statistical certainty that the U.S. government has executed innocent people, and the brutality of the death penalty itself, it's difficult to support capital punishment.

It feels like a relic of another age, a barbaric practice that doesn't belong in a civilized society.  Especially at a time when science has discredited longstanding methods to "prove" guilt, when research has shown witness testimony is virtually useless because of how malleable memories are.

Those arguments come up every time a death row inmate is set to be executed, every time defense attorneys launch last-ditch efforts to save their clients as the hours and minutes wind down.

They came up again ahead of March 22, when the state of Texas executed Adam Ward. Ward's attorneys failed in their bid to get the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, upholding a lower court's ruling that Ward should face the death penalty.

I don't support the death penalty, but it's difficult to fault the Supreme Court for passing on this case. There are plenty of questionable convictions, cases in which innocent men and women face almost certain death despite serious flaws in evidence-gathering or questionable witness statements.

This is not one of those cases.

Reading the coverage of Ward's execution, you'd think the Texas man was a Shawshank-like figure, a man proclaiming his innocence from prison while a growing number of supporters rally to his cause. Despite the absence of evidence that Ward suffers from intellectual disabilities, Newsweek ran a story with the headline, "Texas Executes Mentally Ill Man After Multiple Appeals." A story in Gawker Media's Jezebel barely acknowledges the death of Ward's victim. Instead, the story paints a picture of injustice, casting Ward as a victim of police wrongdoing.

The facts don't support those claims.

Ward himself admitted he killed 44-year-old Michael Walker, a single father of two. No one disputes that Walker was unarmed, carrying only a cellphone and a camera, according to The Associated Press. And Walker was just doing his job.

Ward and his father had been piling junk on their front lawn for some time in 2005, and when neighbors complained, the city of Commerce -- more of a small town of about 9,000 people, 60 miles northeast of Dallas -- gave Ward a deadline to clean his yard.

When the deadline came and went without the cooperation of Ward, the local government sent Walker, a code enforcement officer, to follow up. On July 13, 2005, Walker was taking photographs of Ward's front lawn when Ward angrily confronted the code enforcement officer.

After arguing with Walker, Ward walked back into his house, retrieved a .45-caliber pistol, then returned and shot Walker. Nine times.

Walker, who realized Ward was out of control, had already asked for back-up. Police officers arrived less than a minute after Ward gunned him down, local station KLTV reported at the time.

Ward's attorneys argued that their client had an IQ below 70, which would mean he was intellectually disabled under the law. Prosecutors argued there was no evidence to support that claim, and said Ward had registered an IQ as high as 123 on tests he was given.

As a series of jailhouse interviews with AP and other news organizations demonstrated, Ward was aware of what he'd done, perfectly understood the consequences of his actions, and spoke intelligently about his fate.

The only argument he mustered in his defense was that he felt threatened, so he shot Walker.

"Only time any shots were fired on my behalf was when I was matching force with force," Ward told the AP in February. "I wish it never happened, but it did, and I have to live with what it is."

Ward had a long time to think about what he was doing when he walked back inside his home to retrieve his pistol. Ward's father told KLTV he tried to stop his son, but Ward wouldn't listen.

Ward never apologized for killing Walker, and right up until his last moments, he lamented his own fate, but didn't acknowledge the life he snuffed out in 2005.

There are plenty of other cases involving mentally ill inmates on death row or those with low IQs. Organizations like Human Rights Watch, the ACLU and Amnesty International have issued dozens of reports on the unfair practice of executing the intellectually disabled.

If the Supreme Court is going to hear any case involving the mentally ill and those who are intellectually disabled and the death penalty, the justices can do a lot better than reviewing the case of a man who clearly had control of his own faculties.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: KLTV, AP, Newsweek, Jezebel, California Association of Code Enforcement Officers / Photo credit: Amnesty International Turkey

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