Don’t execute people, especially those with holes in their head

In 1972, Cecil Clayton, then 31, was sawing a log in a lumberyard when a wood splinter ricocheted from his blade and struck his left temple. He recovered after nine days in the hospital, but he lost about 20% of his prefrontal lobe. After his recovery, according to his brother, Cecil, “broke up with his wife, began drinking alcohol and became impatient, unable to work and more prone to violent outbursts.” Then, twenty-four years later in 1996, Clayton shot and killed sheriff deputy Christopher Casetter.

Cecil Clayton's MRI (brain scan) result revealing a substantial hole in his prefrontal lobe.
Cecil Clayton’s MRI (brain scan) result revealing a substantial hole in his prefrontal lobe.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology class, Clayton’s accident and subsequent pattern of behavior might seem familiar to you. You may remember that in 1848, the young railroad company foreman Phineas Gage suffered a similar injury. He was drilling a hole in some rock and he used an iron rod to pack the hole with gunpowder, which then exploded, sending the rod through his cheekbone and out the top of his head. Gage got up from his injury still walking and talking, but, legend has it, he soon became a temperamental and violent drunk.

Computer generated depiction of where the iron rod penetrated and left Phineas Gage's skull.
Computer generated depiction of where the iron rod penetrated and left Phineas Gage’s skull.

However, people close to Gage report he still warmly entertained his nieces and became fond of animals; others report he was physically and mentally fit enough to drive a 60-mile stage couch in another country. Though, “he was no longer Gage,” following his accident, whether he became unstable and violent isn’t factual.

Clayton’s behavior, however, is better documented and has more clearly taken a turn for the worse. For example, he scored a 71 (± 4 to 5 points) on his most recent IQ test*. Moreover, since his accident,

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.

Ed Pilkington, The Guardian

Clayton, 74, is surely mentally disabled, yet the same year he killed Casetter, he was sentenced to death in Missouri. Recently, on Saturday, March 14th, he was denied a mental competency hearing, the only chance for him to establish his disability and save his life. Yet even if his lawyers were succesful in attaining such a hearing, it may not nullify his death sentence. Though the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the 8th amendment excludes the execution of the “intellectualy disabled”, each state is allowed to use its own definition of intellectually disabled. Clayton’s fate may very well boil down to Missouri’s statute that requires intellectual disability be established by the time the inmate turns 18. That is, it wouldn’t matter if Clayton had lost half his brain and most mental capacities imaginable by age 19; his tragic mental state would be irrelevant to his execution ruling. So, barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court or the governor of Missouri, Clayton will die today by lethal injection.

Cecil Clayton is reasonably a dangerous man. However, given the state of his mind, it’s cruel to execute him. One psychologist noted Clayton, “is not simply incompetent legally, he would be unable to care for himself or manage basic self-care, were he not in a structured environment that takes care of him … he still does not comprehend, appreciate nor understand its approaching date for him.” What purpose would be served by killing this person?

Maybe retribution? I might suffer from a lack of imagination, but I can’t fathom retributive justice—essentially state condoned vengenece—as ever being good reason for any punishment, let alone execution. Perhaps, though, executing Clayton will serve some sort of deterrent purpose? This I think is even more ridiculous than retributive justice: executing Clayton to set an example for the rest of the mentally disabled also contemplating murder. In other words, the hope would be that other mentally disabled men and women would, upon learning the news of Clayton and others’ fates, consider the serious legal consequences of murder.


So whether it’s to exact vengeance or deter future mentally handicapped murderers, I have difficulty not guffawing at the thought of any reason to execute Clayton or anyone like him. Moreover, the absurdity of furnishing any good reason to execute a man with a hole in his brain should call into question the very idea of executing anyone. Indeed, former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who in 1976 voted to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, famously renounced his position on the death penalty, stating, “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” Yet, on we tinker.

Sources not in text:

*Full Scale scores beyond 130 place an individual in the superior or “gifted” range. Scores between 120-129 are classed as “very high.” Scores between 110-119 are “bright normal.” Classifications of other scores are as follows: 90-109, average; 85-89, low average; 70-84, borderline mental functioning, 50-69, mild mental retardation; 35-49, moderate retardation; 20-34, severe retardation; below 20 to 25, profound retardation (The Wechsler Intelligence Scales). However, Hall v. Flordia ruled it unconstitutional to set an IQ requirement for determining intellectual disability.


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