Less than a day after I published on this blog a piece dedicated to exposing and examining the systematic cruelty in America’s prison system the state of Texas went through with an act that confirmed what I had written in the worst possible way. I can think of very few words, other than monstrous, barbaric, disgusting, and sick, to describe the state of Texas’s decision to kill a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson, and even they seem to fall short of describing the full weight of the situation. While the Supreme Court has barred the practice of killing a mentally retarded person it has left the definition of “mental retardation” up to each individual state. Texas, where 3 out every 4 American executions since the Supreme Court reinstated the death sentence in 1976 have taken place, has essentially gone about rewriting the definition for the sole perhaps of executions. Proof of this can be found in the Texas Court of Appeals own phrasing of the question
Does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?
Thus Texas is ignoring any clinical or social services definition for mental retardation, definitions that may be used for government purposes in the state, in order to kill as many people as possible. This is why in eschewing the clinical they resort to crude stereotypes, such as the fictional character Lennie from John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, which the Texas Court of Appeals cited to justify killing a man with an IQ of just 61.
What is perhaps more disturbing than Texas’s decision to fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s prohibition on killing the mentally retarded is that a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court allowed this to happen. Given the horror story after horror story that has come out of the Texas judiciary I expect as little of them as I would the worst of kangaroo courts in the most authoritarian nations. However, the Supreme Court, which I have generally little esteem for, clearly barred the killing of the mentally retarded. And while they left the responsibility for defining mental retardation to the state, Texas’s own definition is no definition at all and merely a not so subtle attempt to contravene the ban on killing mentally retarded individuals.
While state-sponsored killing is always a deplorable act, it is made more sickening by the fact that the state of Texas murdered someone who essentially had the intellectual capabilities of a child. To make matters worse the only evidence that Wilson was responsible for the murder of a drug informant came from the wife of his accomplice who claimed that Wilson, not her husband, had actually done the killing. Since that time Wilson’s lawyers had uncovered evidence that cast doubts onto whether or not Wilson was even present at the scene of the crime.
The final disturbing aspect of Wilson’s execution centers around how it was done. Wilson is one of few Americans to be killed by a single-drug protocol. In the past lethal injections in the United States were carried out with a three-drug protocol using barbituric acids. However last year, the European Union, which considers capital punishment to be a human rights violation, moved to ban the export of such drugs to the United States. Instead of seeing the ban as a moment to reconsider it’s capital punishment policies, many states have resorted to using a single-drug protocol. Under this method, the condemned is given the same drug that is used by veterinarians to euthanize animals. Though some have argued the single-drug protocol is in fact more humane than the three drug cocktail, it has still generated controversy since it is at best a largely experimental procedure.
Capital punishment is always and under all circumstance unacceptable. While violence may possibly be justified in cases of self-defense, national liberation movements against an external aggressor, or revolutionary actions against a repressive regime (I’ll leave these questions for future debates) in capital punishment the state captures, detains, and then kills someone who poses no threat to anyone. In short, it is nothing more than premeditated murder carried out by the state. Just as we do not tolerate premeditated murder from ordinary citizens we should not excuse such actions when carried out by the state.
As disgraceful as capital punishment is, the murder of Marvin Wilson takes the practice to a new level of barbarism. That no higher court sought fit to intervene in a practice previously deemed unconstitutional demonstrates that to apply the label “justice” to the system that presided over the muder of Wilson is nothing more than a cruel farce, an insult to the very meaning of the word.