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"Shock and awe"

Execution of the mental ill

April 15, 2003



Those are the 2 emotions many feel after reading of an execution that took place March 26 in Texas. Nobody doubts that James Colburn was mentally ill; evidence of his illness is manifest and most would agree that when he killed Peggy Murphy in 1994, he was suffering the effects of his illness.
But for Texas, maybe the thinking is that if mental illness doesn't prevent you from holding the state's highest office, or the Oval Office, it shouldn't keep you away from the executioner either.

There is no doubt that Colburn committed the killing for which he was convicted; he did not commit murder. Murder is generally considered to be the intentional and unlawful killing of another human being and there are certainly many killings that would fit that description; this isn't one of them.

James Colburn was known to be mentally ill from the age of 14. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and at least twice during his life had been placed in mental institutions. He had also been in and out of prison on several occasions for burglary, robbery, assault, and arson and was actually on parole when he killed Peggy Murphy. She had been hitchhiking outside the apartment where Colburn lived and had asked for a drink of water. Evidence showed that Colburn invited her inside, attempted to rape her, choked her when she resisted, and then stabbed her in the neck. She died from the knife wound.

Later on the day of the killing, Colburn confessed to police and told them he heard a voice telling him to kill Murphy because that would send him back to prison, a place he knew well and where he felt safe.

Despite many years of illness, which may sufficiently explain his anti-social behaviour, Colburn had received only sporadic treatment. After his insurance coverage ran out when he turned eighteen, he sought treatment at several facilities only to be turned away because of an inability to pay. At almost no time since his teenage years could James Colburn be said to be in control of his faculties.

He was convicted of the killing and sentenced to death, the time-honored Texas way of doing things. There are some who simply seem to derive a perverse pleasure from ordering the killing of things, but most proponents or supporters of capital punishment insist it is only reserved for the worst and most heinous crimes committed by the most blameworthy perpetrators. How does a man who is clearly a stranger to the reality shared by most of us, who suffered chronic delusions and hallucinations, become a "most blameworthy perpetrator"?

After thirty or so years of illness, Colburn was finally receiving mental health treatment in the weeks leading up to this killing. His history includes delusions of persecution, multiple suicide attempts, hospitalisations, incoherent thinking, auditory hallucinations, and psychotic episodes. And when, as he said, one of his inner voices told him to kill Peggy Murphy, he was powerless to stop himself. How does that give him the capacity to "intentionally" kill? It is "intent" that is the prerequisite for murder.

The jury in Colburn's trial was never told about his mental disease even though he went through the trial in a state of heavy sedation needed to keep his symptoms under control. He actually slept through a large part of
the proceedings because of the intense soporific effects of the medications. At appeal, several courts ruled that the mental illness could not be introduced because it was not raised in the original trial. In other words, it doesn't matter how sick he might be, if his lawyers didn't follow the proper protocols in the 1st trial, he gets to pay with his life. This is a highly specious and suspect line of thought; if court officials felt he was ill enough to require sedation during his trial, then the mental illness was raised and recognized, even if the jury wasn't
actually told about it.

In a recent news release from Amnesty International, its Executive Director is quoted as saying: "James Colburn was drinking a solution of his own urine and 'Bippy' cleanser last fall [2002] with the belief that it would make him a ghost after he died. Yet Texas found him competent to be executed. It is paradoxical that the U.S. Supreme Court recently granted a hearing to determine whether a St. Louis man can be forcibly medicated in order to face minor fraud charges while James Colburn's case goes unheard even though he was forcibly medicated for his schizophrenia in order to receive a death sentence."

During the appeals process, the state argued that Colburn's mental illness was not sufficiently severe to render him legally insane. Court-appointed psychologists had advised that despite his mental illness, he did understand that his execution was imminent and the reasons for it.
Assuming that is accurate, it has nothing to do with the issue; the issue was whether he was competent at the time he committed the killing. All evidence would suggest that he was not and that should mean that he did not have the requisite mental acuity to form an "intent," or "mens rea," as the law calls it. And if that is the case, then he is not guilty of murder and should not have suffered the death penalty. He would certainly be guilty of the killing, because he did kill; but killing isn't necessarily murder and that is why there are various possible charges relating to killing and various possible sentences.

Certainly, one wouldn't have expected that the Republic of Texas might want to actually provide treatment for this man; it is much more satisfying to take his life and be done with him. But we might have hoped for a little more humanity from the appeal courts.

Most of the world's democracies, and even many of its dictatorships, eschew capital punishment. But they are almost unanimous in their agreement that even in those countries where capital punishment is retained, it should at the very least not be imposed on the mentally ill.

Capital punishment is wrong for any reason. It is a uniquely cruel form of societal revenge, inevitably prone to error, and most often inflicted on the most vulnerable population: the poor and the non-white. But there can be no excuse for taking the life of someone who committed a crime beyond his or her ability to control or prevent. We might just as well blame a blind man for stepping on our toes on the bus.

(source: Yellow.Times.Org [Paul Harris is self-employed as a consultant providing Canadian businesses with the tools and expertise to successfully reintegrate their sick or injured employees into the workplace. He has travelled extensively in what we arrogant North Americans refer to as "the Third World," and he believes that life is very much like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. Paul lives in Canada.]

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