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Will US Supreme Court spare brain-damaged man on Missouri death row? (+video)

Attorneys are asking the Supreme Court Tuesday to issue a stay of execution for a Missouri death-row inmate who is missing part of his brain.

Attorneys are asking the Supreme Court on Tuesday to issue a stay of execution for a Missouri death-row inmate who is missing part of his brain as a result of a 1972 sawmill accident. Cecil Clayton, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 1996, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Tuesday, but his lawyers argue that brain damage and dementia make him constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty.

In 2002, the US Supreme Court found that executing the mentally disabled violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments."

But in a divided ruling this weekend, the Missouri Supreme Court found that Mr. Clayton understands why he has been sentenced to death and is thus eligible for execution.

The 4-to-3 ruling raises serious questions about the constitutionality of executing prisoners with brain damage, anti-death penalty advocates say.

“The Constitution says you have to be competent to be executed. A clear case has been made that Mr. Clayton is not competent," says Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. "So if the state fails to provide the process to determine his eligibility for constitutional protection, it raises the question of who you are allowed substantively to execute. Can a person with a hole in his head be entitled to the same constitutional safeguard as someone with intellectual disability? Is there a distinction between a person who has mental disabilities prior to age 18 and someone who develops them later in life due to an accident?” 

The Missouri court's ruling found in part that state law determines that for a person to be deemed “intellectually disabled,” and thus, ineligible for execution, the condition would have had to be diagnosed before the person turned 18. Clayton’s injury occurred when he was 32. But the defense maintains that psychologists and doctors have consistently determined that Clayton is insane and intellectually disabled.

When a piece of wood broke from a sawmill and hit Mr. Clayton in the head in 1972, it pierced his skull. Surgeons were able to save his life, but he lost a fifth of his frontal lobe, the vital part of the brain that neuroscience has determined controls judgment, inhibition, and impulsive behavior. The loss amounted to roughly 8 percent of his brain, his attorneys argue, saying that scans of Clayton’s skull show a hole about the size of a fist.

After the accident, Clayton’s life and personality changed drastically, his lawyers say. A man whom they characterize as a devoted and responsible husband and father sank into a depression, separated from his wife, and became an alcoholic. According to his lawyers, Clayton also suffered from hallucinations, memory loss, fits of rage, paranoia, and suicidal tendencies.

“He has the reading ability of a nine-year-old, has visual and auditory hallucinations in which he is convinced that he is accompanied by a man and a woman wherever he goes, is incapable of simple tasks such as ordering food from the prison commissary, and is under the delusion that he will never be executed because God will intervene and free him so that he can return to his preaching and gospel singing,” wrote Ed Pilkington for the Guardian.

In the 1996 incident that led to his conviction, Clayton shot and killed sheriff’s deputy Christopher Castetter after the officer responded to a domestic disturbance near Clayton’s girlfriend’s home.

Clayton displayed signs of confusion during his arrest, saying that his victim “shouldn’t have smarted off to me," but adding, “but I don’t know because I wasn’t out there,” the Guardian reported.

The appeal to the US Supreme Court comes after Clayton’s lawyers petitioned the Missouri Supreme Court six times, calling for a review of his mental condition to verify whether he is entitled to Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The court has denied the request each time, saying that the prisoner has not met the level of impairment necessary to justify a hearing.

“The Missouri Supreme Court essentially required Mr. Clayton to prove his incompetency in order to obtain a hearing on his incompetency,” reads Clayton’s plea to the Supreme Court, as reported by the Guardian.

In a dissenting opinion from the Missouri court, Laura Denvir Stith, one of the three judges who say Clayton is entitled to a competency hearing, wrote: “The denial of such a hearing deprives Mr. Clayton of a fair opportunity to show that the constitution prohibits his execution.”

The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Central time on Tuesday, and will go forward barring last-minute intervention from the high court.

“If the Supreme Court grants review, it will have precedential effect. One would hope this is the type of case they would review because this it is out of the usual and because the evidence of Mr. Clayton’s impairment is so well documented,” Mr. Dunham says. 

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