Death Watch: Is Randall Mays "Competent" to Die?

Trial court stays execution to consider if he's mentally unfit, again

Texas courts have spent years concluding that Randall Mays is "competent" to be put to death. But his execution, scheduled for Oct. 16, was postponed last week by his trial court in Henderson County to take yet another look at his competency. Not his sanity, mind you; no one is claiming he's sane.

Mays was sentenced to death in 2008 for the murders of Henderson County sheriff's deputies Tony Ogburn and Paul Habelt during a standoff at his rural home. His defense attorneys mentioned his mental illness at trial, but not in any meaningful way, fearing it would backfire with the jury. Subse­quent appeals brought forward competency claims several times; they were swatted away. Mays may have been mentally ill, various courts agreed, but he was not barred from execution. He understood that he was to be executed and why – which was all the law required.

Then, as his original May 2015 execution date approached, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court to reform the state's unscientific methods for determining competency, felt compelled to take another look. They scheduled a hearing to make sure Mays had the necessary knowledge.

Randall Mays

Once you're familiar with his case, you can understand why they might not be so confident. Mays says he has heard the voice of God speaking directly to him since he was an infant; he has had hallucinations and paranoid delusions just as long. He believes he has been awarded a patent on a device that would put the oil and gas companies out of business, and that is why the warden wants to kill him. For a time while on death row, he believed that a small man sat on his shoulder, waving a knife at him. And for years, going all the way back to his original trial, he has believed he is being systematically poisoned.

Mays' competency hearing was finally conducted in the summer of 2017; three mental health experts interviewed him over the course of several months. Two of the three concluded that he was not competent to be executed, because he didn't understand why the state wanted to put him to death; the other said he was. The judge at that hearing chose to declare Mays competent, and the CCA concurred.

If he is declared competent yet again, Mays will be the second mentally ill person put to death this fall. Like Mays, Robert Sparks heard voices and thought he was being poisoned. Sparks was executed on Sept. 25. It is estimated that 20% of prisoners on death row are mentally ill.

On Oct. 4, the CCA postponed Randy Hal­prin's execution, scheduled for Oct. 10, and sent the case back to his Dallas trial court for review. Halprin, who is Jewish, alleged in a last-minute appeal that Vickers Cunningham, the judge in his 2003 trial, was a bigot whose bias tainted rulings on jury selection, admission of evidence, and attorney motions (see "Death Watch," Oct. 4).

Matters are accelerating in the case of Rodney Reed, convicted of killing Stacey Stites in 1998 and scheduled for execution on Nov. 20. Reed's lawyers filed a motion in Bastrop on Oct. 4, asking the district court to withdraw his execution date so they can investigate new evidence of innocence – separate from an appeal currently awaiting review by SCOTUS. Two witnesses have come forward with information on Jimmy Fennell, Stites' fiancé at the time of her murder and the only other suspect in the case.

The first witness tells of signing Stites up for life insurance as Fennell stands beside them. Stites wonders aloud why she should get life insurance because she's so young (she was 19 at the time of her murder). The affidavit reads, "In response to that comment, Jim, in my presence, told her, 'If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you and no one will ever know it was me that killed you.' I remember it well because of the tone of voice that he used. It was not presented as a joke." That statement would be highly relevant, because Reed alleges that he and Stites had been having a secret affair, which would explain the presence of his semen in her dead body – the only evidence connecting him to the 1996 murder. Prose­cutors at the trial disputed his claim of an affair, which would have destroyed their case.

In the second affidavit, Fennell is attending Stites' funeral with a colleague in the Gid­dings Police Department, and the two are gazing down at Stites in the coffin. "At that moment," says Fennell's colleague, "Jimmy said something that I will never forget. Jimmy said something along the lines of, 'You got what you deserved.' Jimmy was directing his comment at Ms. Stites's body. I was completely shocked and floored by what Jimmy said.

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The Chronicle has covered Rodney Reed’s case for nearly 20 years. For more, visit our Rodney Reed archive.

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Death Watch, Randall Mays, Tony Ogburn, Paul Habelt, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, U.S. Supreme Court, Robert Sparks, Randy Halprin, Vickers Cunningham, Rodney Reed, Stacey Stites, Jimmy Fennell

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