Opinion

Should Ohio put an inmate with dementia to death?

Should Ohio put an inmate with dementia to death?

James Frazier was 64 in 2005 when he was sentenced to die in the 2004 Toledo murder and robbery of Mary Stevenson, a 49-year-old with cerebral palsy who lived in the same federally subsidized low-income apartment complex.

Frazier was living on Social Security disability, which he argued in his death penalty appeal was tied to his low intellectual functioning. His IQ was rated as borderline, just over 70, by experts for both the prosecution and defense.

But it wasn’t until 2014 that the U.S. Supreme Court, which had earlier ruled that severely intellectually disabled individuals should not be put to death, threw out Florida’s strict cutoff of a 70 IQ for executions. In its 2014 ruling, the high court pointed to a standard five-point margin of error on IQ tests (which Frazier would have fallen within), and ruled a more comprehensive assessment of mental functioning should be used.

In 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court had unanimously turned down Frazier’s challenge to his death sentence on the grounds of his low mental functioning; his lawyers’ failure to use it as a defense at trial; and the prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenges against two of the three African American jurors in the final jury pool, among other alleged errors. Frazier is Black. The Ohio Supreme Court noted in its ruling that Frazier grew up in a chaotic and deeply impoverished family with a largely absent and abusive father, and was kidnapped and raped by a man as he got off a bus when he was only 13 or 14, an experience that still haunted him. As a boy, Frazier was taunted by fellow students for his slowness, and refrained from participating in most non-school activities from shame over his shabby clothes.

Frazier, at 79, is now the oldest inmate on Ohio’s Death Row, suffering from dementia so acute that he cannot recall his trial, much less the murder for which he was convicted, say his current lawyers, who have filed a notice of insanity seeking to have him removed from Death Row. It’s the first time a dementia defense has been raised on Ohio’s Death Row, according to experts interviewed by cleveland.com’s John Caniglia — but likely won’t be the last. Ohio hasn’t executed anyone since July 2018, in part because of a lack of death penalty drugs.

Our editorial board has long opposed the death penalty but this case raises the further question of how a state with the death penalty should deal with aging defendants who’ve lost mental understanding. The U.S. Supreme Court last year wrote that a Death Row inmate with dementia who cannot “reach a rational understanding of why the State wants to execute him” should not be put to death. But is it right that Frazier should escape the sentence adjudicated against him simply because he has lost knowledge of what has happened, or is about to happen?

– CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER

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