Members Only | October 20, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
SCOTUS ignores its own rulings to keep executions going
A death row man ate his own eye. Justices said whatevs.
The Supreme Court seems determined to execute as many people as possible. Ineffective counsel? Clear evidence of racial animus among jurors? Violation of habeas corpus rights? According to the current Supreme Court, none of these are obstacles to executing someone.
This term’s Thomas v. Lumpkin involved an ineffectual defense, racial bias and a mentally ill defendant. The court ignored their own precedent to keep a man on death row without hearing his appeal.
In 2004, Andre Lee Thomas, a 21-year-old Black man with a history of mental health issues, murdered his white ex-wife, their 4-year-old son and her 1-year-old daughter (both children were mixed race).
He also stabbed himself three times.
When he didn’t die, he left the house and turned himself into the police. He confessed to the murders but said he killed them because God wanted him to and there were demons inside his body.
While awaiting trial, Thomas removed his own eye with his own hands and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was declared incompetent to stand trial for 47 days. Despite the diagnosis, a psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Black, wrote a letter to the judge and said Thomas was now competent and his diagnosis was a drug-induced psychosis.
Dr. Black went so far as to say Thomas could be exaggerating his symptoms to “avoid consequences.” The defense attorney later admitted it was a mistake not to challenge the letter’s findings. Prior to the murders, Thomas had attempted suicide at least twice before seeking help multiple times in the weeks right before the murders.
Thomas was tried and convicted for the murder of Leyha Marie Hughes in 2005 by an all-white jury. Four jurors had openly expressed opposition to interracial relationships in their jury questionnaires and were sat without objection. Thomas’s defense was that he was insane at the time of the killings and not responsible, but the state argued that since Thomas voluntarily drank and took drugs in the days leading up to the murder those actions negated an insanity defense.
The prosecutor invoked historical fears of interracial sex and the myth of the Black rapist. During the sentencing phase, the prosecutor asked the jury, “Are you going to take the risk of him asking your daughter out or your granddaughter out?”
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The trial was held in Sherman, Texas, in the shadow of a 1930 lynching of a Black man accused of raping a white woman. The prosecutor’s question about future risk was important. To impose a death sentence the jury had to answer “yes” to Thomas being a future danger.
Jurors also had to answer “no” to mitigating factors, which they did, because the defense presented little in the way of mitigation, despite Thomas’s history of abuse, mental illness violence and neglect.
Thomas has been on death row since 2005, during which time his mental illness has intensified. He is now completely blind, as he gouged out his remaining eye and ate it. In 2020, the Fifth Circuit heard Thomas’ appeal on the basis that the jury was racially biased and his defense ineffectual. This case should have been easily overturned based on a number of existing precedents.
But the Fifth Circuit is determined to ignore every precedent if it stands in the way of its conservative agenda. The Supreme Court is either supporting it or disinterested in getting in their way.
In 1986, in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to execute an “insane” person under the Eighth Amendment and that the principle dated back to common law.
Unfortunately, there is no clear standard on who is too mentally incompetent to be executed. It is left up to individual courts to make that determination. The standard was somewhat clarified in 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman, which held that a defendant couldn’t be executed if they did not understand the reason for their execution but that hardly seems like an exhaustive definition.
Even if a defendant is ruled incompetent to be executed they are often left on death row. It’s hard to look at Thomas’ history of mental illness and argue that he is mentally competent for execution.
In 2017, in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, the Supreme Court ruled that clear statements of racial bias by jury members are an exception to the “no impeachment rule,” which prohibits jurors from testifying about their deliberations to discredit a verdict.
In her dissent in Thomas v. Lumpkin, Justice Sonia Sotomayor quoted this case in saying that, “It is ultimately the duty of the courts ‘to confront racial animus in the justice system’ … That responsibility requires courts, including this one, vigilantly to safeguard the fairness of criminal trials by ensuring that jurors do not harbor, or at the very least could put aside, racially biased sentiments.”
Last year the Supreme Court ignored its own precedent in the same case to allow Texas to execute someone. In 2020’s Andrus v. Texas, the court held that Texas could not execute Andrus because of inadequate counsel at trial and ordered the lower court to reevaluate.
But when reevaluating, the lower court simply agreed with its original determination that the “mitigating evidence is not particularly compelling.” Similarly, in 2017, the Supreme Court decided that Bobby Moore couldn’t be executed because he was intellectually disabled, but the lower court reinstated his death sentence and the Supreme Court once again had to overturn it in 2019. The Supreme Court declined to intervene in June 2022 after the Texas court ignored their ruling in Andrus and his execution will continue.
Neither Terence Andrus nor Andre Lee Thomas should be on death row. Both have ample reason to challenge their sentences but the Supreme Court is ignoring its own recent precedent to allow racially biased executions to continue in Texas.
This term, the court is hearing another argument challenging a death sentence from Texas, this time based on claims of innocence, from Rodney Reed. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments to determine if Reed could seek DNA testing to prove his innocence or if he waited too long to seek the remedy.
We can hope the court will allow the DNA testing but unfortunately it seems determined to let executions continue while ignoring claims racial bias, ineffectual counsel, insanity and even innocence.
Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.
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