HUNTSVILLE (AP) – The outcome of legal wrangling about condemned killer Steven Staley’s mental health is likely to determine if the former laborer is put to death this week in Texas for a slaying almost a quarter-century ago in Fort Worth.
Prosecutors contend he’s competent to be executed. His lawyer says Staley is severely mentally ill, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and has been observed catatonic or lying on the floor of his jail cell covered in urine.
Staley, 49, faces lethal injection Wednesday evening for the fatal shooting of a Steak and Ale restaurant manager who was taken hostage during a botched robbery in October 1989. The arrest of Staley and two accomplices after a wild 20-mile car and foot chase ended a series of robberies, assaults and at least one other killing as the trio wreaked havoc in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
In a written statement, Staley implicated himself in the slaying of 35-year-old Bob Read. And since he arrived on death row in 1991, his mental competence became an issue as his punishment neared.
Prosecutors say he’s legally competent, and state District Court Judge Wayne Salvant has ordered him to be medicated, by force if needed.
“If he was found not to be competent, the trial judge would just withdraw the (execution) date,” said Jim Gibson, an assistant district attorney in Tarrant County, where Staley was tried and convicted.
Staley also has been examined by psychologists, who determined the prisoner was competent.
“Everybody agrees he’s competent,” Gibson said. “… I think the issue is going to be why he’s competent.”
Staley’s lawyer, John Stickels, calls the competency artificial.
“The state has given him enough psychotropic drugs that the judge found he met the definition to be competent to be executed,” said Stickels, who is asking the courts to halt the execution. “The whole reason he’s been medicated is to make him competent to be executed.”
Staley’s previous attorney called him “too nuts to be executed” when the courts stopped a scheduled execution in 2005. And Stickles said Staley’s severe mental illness has existed for several years and has been exacerbated by the forced drug regimen Stickles argues was illegally ordered by Salvant.
If lower courts refuse to stay the execution, Stickles said he’ll take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which he said has not addressed the question of involuntary medication for the purposes of execution. When administered, the drugs leave Staley “with extreme sedation and zombie-like effects,” Stickles said in an appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Salvant, in his order, pointed to a 2003 ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said forcible medication is appropriate if it’s likely to make the condemned inmate competent, if the side effects wouldn’t be worse than the benefits and if it’s in the prisoner’s best medical interests.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court said it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is insane. The justices didn’t define insanity, but did say a person may be executed if he’s aware of the punishment and the reason for it. Then in 2002, the court barred execution of mentally impaired people.
Stickles said Staley’s IQ of 70 — considered the threshold for mental impairment — also could disqualify him from the punishment.
Staley, from death row, declined to an interview request from The Associated Press.
In Texas, the nation’s most active death penalty state, Monte Delk was executed in 2002 despite questions about his mental health. Before dying, he spouted obscenities and declared he was the prison warden and on the island of Barbados. In 2007, a 5-4 high court vote stopped Scott Panetti’s execution as his lawyers successfully argued Panetti was delusional and incapable of comprehending the reason for his death sentence.
Staley had escaped from a Denver halfway house where he was awaiting parole on robbery and auto theft convictions. In Fort Worth on the evening of Oct. 14, 1989, he and accomplice Tracey Duke ended a meal by pulling semiautomatic weapons from the purse of Duke’s girlfriend, Brenda Rayburn.
They herded customers and employees to the back of the restaurant, then forced Read to open cash registers and the store safe. An assistant manager slipped out and called police. Read, married and a father of three, urged the robbers to take him and leave the hostages alone when the police arrived.
Officers watched Read walk out the door of the restaurant, guns poked in his ribs. The robbers hijacked a car and police moved in as Read was being forced into the back seat. Evidence showed Staley shot Read, then Staley and Duke fired on the officers.
They then lead authorities on the 20-mile chase, and were caught after the car broke down and they tried to flee on foot.
Duke, 45, is serving three life sentences in Texas and has a 30-year sentence in Colorado for murder and armed robbery. Rayburn accepted 30 years in a plea bargain.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)