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Missouri in a rush to execute brain-damaged killer

Missouri should take a breath and let a condemned man press his claim for constitutional protection

In 1972, Cecil Clayton was working in his family’s Missouri sawmill when a chunk of wood flew up from a log he was cutting and embedded deep into his skull. Surgeons removed the wood, along with 20% of Clayton’s frontal lobe -- the part of the brain that controls, among other thing, impulse.

The injury, not surprisingly, changed his life in dramatic fashion. In the years since that accident, he has been diagnosed, according to a court filing, with “delusional disorder; cognitive disorder; chronic brain disorder; organic personality disorder; major depressive disorder; alcohol dependence; and psychotic disorder, with hallucinations due to traumatic brain injury.” Several years after the accident, Clayton’s mental health had deteriorated so much that he was deemed disabled. And now, at age 74, he suffers from dementia.

Twenty-four years after he lost a piece of his brain, Clayton shot dead a Missouri police officer, a crime for which the state intends to execute him next week. Yet the state is fighting a request that it hold a hearing to determine whether Clayton understands the reason for the execution, a crucial threshold to avoid violating the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

In fact, court filings argue that Clayton believes someone else killed Police Officer Christopher Castetter, and that his trial and imprisonment is a test by God, who will save him at the last minute and free him to preach the Gospel. Affidavits from fellow prisoners say Clayton has trouble buying basic items at a prison kiosk, and needs help operating a telephone.

Clayton lost previous appeals that he was ineligible for the death penalty because of mental incapacitation, but his mental condition has deteriorated with the onset of dementia, according to the filings. Whether he was competent to stand trial, or eligible for the death penalty when he was sentenced in 1997, are irrelevant to the current argument of whether he is, at this time, sufficiently competent to be eligible for execution.

This is no small matter. My opposition to the death penalty is absolute, but I also believe that as long as states -- and the federal government -- embrace that barbarous act, they must do so within the limits of the Constitution, particuarly the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment, and the full protections of due process.

Yes, Clayton killed a police officer. Yes, he has appealed his death sentence and lost. But days ahead of his scheduled execution, with significant expert evidence that his mental health has deteriorated, the state has a legal and moral responsibility to let Clayton's lawyers make the case now, before an independent arbiter of facts -- be it the courts or a special master, as the filing seeks -- that he meets the guidelines for mercy.

Missouri, I should add, has been on a killing spree lately. With 10 executions, it tied Texas last year with the most in the nation, followed by Florida with eight. In fact, those three states accounted for 28 of the nation's 35 executions in 2014. It's worth noting that nationally, 2014 saw the fewest executions since 1994, part of a steady decline since the peak of 98 executions in 1999. Even blood-thirsty Texas had its lowest number of executions since 1996. And with more lethal-injection protocols under challenge, and drug companies barring their sale to prisons, there's a good chance 2015 will see even fewer killings of citizens by the government.

So while the rest of the nation is heading in the right direction, Missouri and Florida, which tied its record last year, are the outliers. And by rushing to execute a brain-damaged man suffering from dementia, who is entitled to press his claim that his execution would be unconstitutional, Missouri puts itself outside the realm of justice, and human decency.  

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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