Death Watch: The Stays Stop Here?

After a quiet COVID season, Texas' death row machine rumbles back to life

The State of Texas is once again trying to kill John Hummel. Convicted of bludgeoning his wife and daughter to death in Ft. Worth in 2009, Hummel received a stay of execution last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic but is scheduled for lethal injection on June 30. His attorney, Michael Mowla, hasn't revealed what motions he will file to try to save Hummel's life, but has emphasized his client's mental illness in previous appeals, including the effects of trauma he suffered during his service as a Marine.

The nation's longest-serving death row inmate, Raymond Riles, was resentenced to life in prison on June 9. Riles has been locked up for 47 years after murdering a car salesman in Houston in 1974, but even prison officials acknowledge that he is deeply psychotic. Because there's no constitutional prohibition against executing the mentally ill – the only requirement is that they understand why the execution is happening – the state has fed Riles large doses of psychotropic drugs, hoping to make him sane enough to kill. But Riles continues to believe that the three executions that have been scheduled for him, and then canceled, were retribution for his knowledge of "satanic secret societies" within the Texas Depart­ment of Criminal Jus­tice. The Texas Court of Crim­inal Appeals finally overturned his death sentence in April, agreeing with Riles' attorneys that his trial jury should have considered Riles' schizophrenia back in 1976. With his new sentence, the Texas Board of Par­dons and Paroles could actually release Riles from prison. His lawyer, Jim Marcus of UT's Capital Punishment Clinic, told reporters, "If the Board of Pardons and Paroles sees fit to grant parole, he has family with the capacity to care for him."

In addition to determining who gets parole, the BPP may recommend that the governor commute death sentences. But it has done so only five times in 50 years. Recently, the BPP turned its back on Quintin Jones, executed on May 19. Jones killed his great-aunt, Berthena Bryant, in 1999 as a young man strung out on coke. Bryant's sister, Mattie Long, forgave him and pleaded with Gov. Greg Abbott and the BPP to commute Jones' sentence to life in prison. Over 180,000 others around the world signed a petition asking the same. BPP members, who conduct their work in secret and aren't even required to meet when casting votes, ignored them.

The same day that Jones was executed, the CCA refused in a 5-4 ruling to grant a new punishment trial to Terence Andrus, a man with a very similar life story. Like Jones, Andrus grew up amidst violence and drug addiction, grappling with the trauma-induced mental illness that sometimes stems from such childhoods. Like Jones, he committed murder when still very young, killing two men during a carjacking in 2012. And like Jones, he had a trial attorney who made only the merest attempt to find and present the mitigating evidence of his upbringing. Gretchen Sween, Andrus' current attorney, described what his trial jury should have heard: "his family's struggles in a blighted inner-Houston neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic, when his mother turned to prostitution and drug dealing to keep the lights on; his role as caretaker for his siblings when his mother abandoned her children; [and] his own drug addiction, multiple suicide attempts, and a long history of unresolved mental health issues, dating back to a diagnosis of affective psychosis at age eleven."

The CCA's refusal to grant a new punishment trial for Andrus is made more perplexing by the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court essentially ordered them to do so last June, calling the evidence of his miserable childhood "abundant," "vast," "compelling," "powerful," and "myriad." In refusing to allow a retrial, the CCA called the same evidence "weak." Sween says she is taking the case back to the Supreme Court.

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