A defendant’s mental illness makes him or her less morally culpable of a crime and should be taken into consideration as a reason to avoid the death penalty, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
However, states can and do execute defendants who suffer from mental illnesses. Texas is no exception. The Death Penalty Information Center lists four prisoners who were executed in the Lone Star State despite suffering from severe mental health issues such as paranoid schizophrenia.
In some cases, the perseverance of legal teams can pay off. This month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out the death sentence of Raymond Riles, a prisoner who has been on the state’s death row longer than any other.
Riles was sent to death row in 1976. Despite the state setting several execution dates, he has been repeatedly deemed mentally incompetent to be executed, the Texas Tribune reported. Riles set himself on fire on one occasion and spent months in a hospital and on psychiatric wards.
Riles is now 70. He was convicted in the 1974 shooting death of John Thomas Henry. Riles and another man tried to return a recently purchased car to Henry, a used car dealer, when Riles shot him, court records showed.
The Tribune reported Riles claimed insanity at his trial. Many experts testified that he suffered from paranoid delusions, schizophrenia, and psychosis.
His relatives told the court that severe mental illness ran in the family. However, doctors called by the prosecution claimed Riles faked his mental illness. The jury rejected the insanity defense.
The Tribune reported when jurors weighed Riles’ sentence, they were only tasked with deciding whether the killing was deliberate and if Riles would likely be a future danger. The jury sentenced him to death.
This month, the state court returned Riles’ case to Harris County to again determine a punishment. The justices noted the jury was not instructed to weigh his mental illness when deciding between a punishment of life imprisonment or death. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office supported tossing the sentence. Riles’ conviction of capital murder is not changed.
Riles’ lawyers appealed the death sentence after Texas’ highest court tossed out the death sentence of Cesar Fierro two years ago for the same reason, The Tribune reported. Fierro languished on death row for four decades for the murder of a taxi driver. He was released on parole last year after the El Paso District Attorney decided not to seek the death penalty again.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also vacated the death sentence of Humberto Garza, a man found guilty of killing six men in Hidalgo County in 2003. Garza argued his trial lawyers were ineffective because they failed to present or investigate potential mitigating evidence including his troubled and violent childhood.
Texas executes more defendants than any other state. Find out more about the death penalty on our website. Please call our criminal defense team at (214) 720-9552.