Executing an Insane Killer: a Cynical Ethics Controversy

Let’s me get this straight: this is only a “macabre spectacle” if the guy strapped down to be poisoned isn’t crazy. Right?

In the case of Steven Staley, Texas has itself one of those periodic ethical/legal conundrums surrounding capital punishment that leave me feeling  cynical, puzzled, and worried that I am missing an important part of my compassion apparatus.

Staley’s problem, or his perhaps stroke of luck, is that he is a little more crazy now than he was when he committed the crimes that placed him on death row. In September 1989, Staley escaped from a Denver prison  and started robbing everything he encountered, looting nine businesses across four states. Finally he hit the Steak and Ale Restaurant in Tarrant County, Texas. Staley and his accomplices gathered the employees at gunpoint and forced the manager to hand over the contents of all the registers and the store safe. He then took the manager into the getaway car as a hostage, and executed him as Staley tried to elude the police.

I’m not convinced that this is the sort of crime that quite meets the level of depravity and harm that should warrant ultimate punishment by the criminal justice system, but that is not relevant to the issue under consideration. There is no question that Staley was guilty of the crime. He was convicted and sentenced. But Staley, who obviously did not have the most stable of minds even before he was sentenced, now is completely insane. He  has paranoid delusions, such as believing that he invented the first automobile.  He has beaten and cut himself, and has used feces and urine, as, uh, cosmetics. He speaks in a robotic monotone, and sometimes appears to be catatonic.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1986 ( in Ford v. Wainwright) that it is a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to execute the insane. Thus, advised by his lawyers no doubt, Staley has refused to take the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, which allows him to be sane enough to meet the low bar of competency necessary for the State to legally kill him. Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority in Ford v. Wainwright, declared that to execute a condemned man “who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out” was cruel, and that to do so ignored “the natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity.”

A Texas judge, Judge Wayne Salvant, reasonably ordered prison authorities to forcibly medicate Staley so he could “come to grips with his own conscience or deity,” as if that’s was going to happen. That, however, dragged medical ethics into the equation. Both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have clear standards that hold that a physician taking action that will result, even indirectly, in a human being’s death is a breach of ethics. Staley has been voluntarily nuts since 2006, thanks to  his campaign to cheat the executioner, and in May, his scheduled execution was stayed by another Texas judge, because nobody can figure out how to make Staley sane enough to do away with him.

I know what the law is, and the courts have to deal with what the Supreme Court says, even when it makes little sense. I understand the medical profession’s ethical dilemma as well, and agree with its conclusion: administering medicine that will guarantee a patient’s death by other means is unethical for any doctor. However, the alleged ethical objection to executing of an insane prisoner who was sane when he committed his crime eludes me completely. Indeed, I believe it is a cynical and disingenuous construct by those who believe that any execution is wrong, no matter what the mental state of the condemned may be.

Writing about the case in Slate, Emily Bazelon, a long-time opponent of the death penalty (though she doesn’t flag her bias in the article), makes multiple comments about how executing the insane is “inhumane” and a “macabre spectacle.” Who is she fooling? She believes that all executions are inhumane, and I’ll stipulate that all executions are macabre spectacles, too. Justice Marshall and the liberal members of the Supreme Court were similarly disingenuous. The argument that it is somehow cruel and unconscionable to execute a condemned murderer who has gone mad in prison is nothing but another hurdle thrown in the path of law enforcement by those who oppose capital punishment generally.

I confess: I don’t understand the argument, and I don’t understand why it persuades anyone who isn’t looking for an excuse to foil all capital punishment.  I don’t see why it is more cruel to execute a murderer who is out of it than to kill him while he is fully conscious and considering the existential implications of his demise. Why should we care?  In either case, he’s dead. The elaborate ritual surrounding capital punishment is anachronistic, and, I believe, the cruelest part of the punishment. Endless appeals, last suppers, final calls to the governor and marches down long corridors: that’s close to torture—that’s cruelty. Death is retribution enough: do it quickly; do it quietly. Sneak up on the convicted killer in court after sentence is passed and hit him over the head with a hammer. Execute murderers mob style: those victims never know what hits them. Suffocate them while they sleep. The point is that these individuals did something so wrongful, destructive and anti-social that they have forfeited the right to exist in civilization. The objectives are 1) to eliminate them and 2) to send a clear message to the culture that there is some level of wrongdoing that society considers so egregious that it warrants the ultimate punishment. Once guilt is certain and the sentence is pronounced, the state of mind of the condemned should be of no consequence.

Meanwhile, the foofaraw over Staley has undoubtedly given other borderline crazy prisoners a dandy idea to avoid their own executions, which is, or course, the real reason for the “ethics controversy.” My question is this: are there any honest commentators, lawyers or ethicists who claim to oppose the execution of Staley because of his mental state who wouldn’t still oppose his execution if he was sane? I doubt it. As for me, I think it would be perfectly ethical to execute him while he wears a chicken suit, has a meatloaf on his head and is proclaiming himself Queen of the Plesiosaurs.  The objective is to execute him. What is or isn’t going on in his brain when it happens shouldn’t matter.


Facts: Slate

Source: Texas Tribune

Graphic: Ozzie News

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

29 thoughts on “Executing an Insane Killer: a Cynical Ethics Controversy

  1. Interesting dilemma. I personally do not agree with the death penalty, but that might be because I live in a country that gets by fairly well without it. My moral intuition tells me it’s unethical to put people to death against their will; however I’m perfectly willing to accept that might be a socialized position.

    What I’m interested to know, is why you think that Staley’s mental state is irrelevant. You said, “Once guilt is certain and the sentence is pronounced, the state of mind of the condemned should be of no consequence.” Is there any situation in which a proven-guilty person on death row may be unfit for execution?

      • While I’m against the death penalty for a variety of reasons, and I am strongly against the death penalty for those that were insane when then they committed their crimes and were tried and sentenced for such, I don’t see how this convict’s current insanity is relevant.

        What was inhumane was the insane person never understanding what they did or why they were going to be killed. This convict did understand.

        • > This convict did understand.
          Very likely, but if he’s now mentally challenged it’s no longer a punishment, but a revenge. Was the death sentence adopeted as a means of revenge?

      • Yes, the law mandates a death sentence, but that law was agreed for a purpose. What was it? Is that purpose (the spirit of the law) fulfilled by executiong the insane person in question?

            • My reasoning is in the post, and does not require elaboration. The penalty is for killing another, not as revenge for the victim, but to establish society’s absolute intolerance for murder (and other acts, like treason. It’s not personal, His state of mind while being executed shouldn’t matter. What mattered was his state of mind while committing the crime. Otherwise you get the other situation, where the killer has “found god” and is now a “good person.” Then the argument is that we are executing a “different person” than the killer. Also wrong.

              • > to establish society’s absolute intolerance for murder
                So once the punishment factor is gone (the condemned has no mind), all that’s left in an execution is an “exemplifying” statement by society. How sane is society that believes killing the insane is a good example?

  2. “…no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or diety”.

    Couldn’t this line of reasoning be used to suggest that sociopaths should not be executed as well as those who are insane? Or at least sociopaths should be given some very intense therapy in an effort to produce true remorse, emapathy etc. before being executed in an effort to come to grips with his conscience?

  3. I find myself disagreeing with the medical ethics you describe here, that “administering medicine that will guarantee a patient’s death by other means is unethical.” Giving him anti-psychotic drugs is a medical procedure that will improve the quality of his life. There’s nothing unethical about that. That somebody else will later kill him is not the doctor’s problem, and need not be the doctor’s ethical concern, just as a military corpsman shouldn’t refuse to heal injured soldiers because they might return to battle and be killed.

    The doctor’s responsibility ends where his medical expertise ends, and he should leave the big picture issue to the patient, who should still have the right to refuse consent to treatment. In the case of a mentally incompetent patient, this would be someone with a duty to look out for his interests, which would probably not be served by allowing him to be executed.

    • And yet the AMA is pretty specific that assisting in any way with the execution process is forbidden. Since the condemned man’s lawyers oppose the medication on the client’s behalf, it can’t be called in the patient’s best interest.

  4. I am against the death penalty (like Yardley, I live in a country that seems to get on fine without it) but I agree that, if you are going to have the death penalty, it generally is no worse to kill a mentally disabled individual than a sane one (assuming he or she was not disabled when the crime was committed). I believe in the importance of appeals, though, and would more strongly oppose killing someone where mental incompetence prevented someone from directing an appeal to their liking.

  5. I have nevet understood mental defect stipulations. If the.crime.commited is deserving of the death penelty, the criminal should be put to death. Knowing right.from should not play into it.

  6. Exercise in Logic:

    The State of Texas says to any death row convict, “It is wrong, unethical and immoral to kill another human being so we are going to kill you.”


    • Nah, that’s not what the state says or means, and you could use the same fallacious argument to say that the state can’t imprison someone for keeping some one locked up in their basement. The crime is murder, and the state executing a duly tried and convicted murderer is neither a crime nor is it murder.

      Normally I might say, “Nice try!” but it’s really not.

      • OK. The killling is okay if done in the name of all of us for calm and lofty reasons; the killing is not okay if done by an individual for passionate or selfish reasons. Got it.

        • No call to be snide. Warfare defies traditional ethical analysis. It is the exception, an ethically justifiable activity made up of unethical and unforgivable acts. It’s easy to condemn war as unethical, but refusing to fight when civilization is challenged and threatened just cedes the world to evil. It’s a continuing debate over who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and the debate is going to go on. Making fun of it is facile and unproductive, and generically condemning it pointless. We know.

          • > It’s a continuing debate over who are the good guys
            > and who are the bad guys
            What’s good for one side is bad for the other cnd vice-versa. Therefore a good/bad analysis makes no sense, the fight is about interests. The point of ethics is to minimize the losses of all involved (Nash equilibrium), it’s pure game theory.

    • The State of Texas says to any death row convict, “It is wrong, unethical and immoral to kill another human being so we are going to kill you.”

      Is it immoral to imprison Vinson Filyaw for four hundred twenty-one years?

      It is far, far longer than the ten days he held Elizabeth Shoaf captive.

      • This isn’t eye for an eye biblical morality. I don’t know the Filyaw case, but I’m guessing there’s something more to it than 10 days worth of kidnapping.

        • This isn’t eye for an eye biblical morality. I don’t know the Filyaw case, but I’m guessing there’s something more to it than 10 days worth of kidnapping.

          He stole her virginity.

          • Kidnapping has to be one of the most frightening things to go through. This would take a tremendous toll on you and affect you for the rest of your life. Being with someone who you don’t know if they are going to keep you as a slave,torture you and in the end kill you?

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