by John W. Whitehead
Supporters of capital punishment consider it a deterrent to crime, a punishment for criminals and retribution on behalf of the victim. Yet when the criminal who is sentenced to death is mentally incapable of understanding his punishment--or seeing it as such--the death penalty loses whatever power it possesses to deter other crimes and serves only as an exercise in revenge.
That was essentially the reasoning used by Virginia jurors when they sentenced accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who has shown himself to be mentally unsound, to life in prison. The fate of Percy Levar Walton, who is sentenced to be put to death on June 8, 2006, should be no different.
Dubbed "Crazy Horse" by prison officials, Walton, a psychotic schizophrenic, is presently on death row in Virginia awaiting execution for three murders he committed when he was 18 years old. Yet Walton, who has been plagued by severe mental illness since adolescence, is scarcely conscious of the fate that awaits him. While others on death row bide their time in counting down to their final hours, Walton spends his time amassing a large pile of salt, pepper and sugar packets in his prison cell.
And while state officials may view Walton's pending execution as the final form of punishment, Walton does not see execution as the end of his life. Instead, he believes that his execution will restore life, bringing him, his grandfather and his victims back to life. During his sentencing hearing, he reportedly laughed, waved to family members in the courtroom and wrote incoherent notes to his attorney.
Clearly, this is not a sane man. Nor does he seem to have sufficient mental acuity to view his pending state-enforced death as the ultimate punishment. Most medical experts concur. Almost every mental health expert who has examined Walton has determined that he is severely mentally retarded. Two independent doctors have officially diagnosed him as schizophrenic. One doctor noted that Walton has continually suffered from severe depression, an inability to focus and moderate to severe levels of insanity. Another doctor pointed out that he presents symptoms of hallucinations, delusions, bizarre behavior and positive formal thought disorder. State psychiatrist Dr. Patricia General described Walton as "floridly psychotic" and in May 2003 measured his IQ at 66 (IQ scores below 70 are generally considered a strong indicator of mental retardation).
Walton's delusions are so far-fetched that he has claimed to be everyone from his own father to the King of Hearts, Superman, Queen Bee and Jesus Christ. He insists that the Bible was written about him and that he hears voices and sees a disturbing image of a face with a fishhook in its eye. Walton also believes that if he closes his eyes, he can become invisible.
Given his lack of comprehension about the consequences of his actions and mental instability, it should come as little surprise that Walton pleaded guilty to the 1996 murders of 81-year-old Elizabeth Hendrick, 80-year-old Jesse Hendrick and 33-year-old Archie Moore.
Despite the mountain of evidence pointing to Walton's severe mental health issues, the Virginia state courts were loath to commute his death sentence. The federal courts were no better. And although the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution on May 27, 2003, subsequent lower court rulings have affirmed his death sentence.
Percy Walton's fate now rests with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, unless the U.S. Supreme Court chooses to once again intervene. Gubernatorial commutation for mentally retarded death row inmates is not unprecedented and, in fact, occurred in Virginia in 1999 when schizophrenic inmate Calvin Swann was granted clemency by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore. Five of the most recent grants of clemency to death row inmates nationally have also been based on the inmates' extreme mental illness.
It is tempting when faced with the likes of Percy Walton to think that putting him to death will restore the balance and make the world a safe place again. Perhaps that is possible when one is dealing with a clear-headed criminal, although studies on the impact of the death penalty on crime seem to suggest differently. Yet when one is dealing with a criminal who is mentally retarded, the use of the death penalty succeeds only in perpetrating the wrongs that have been done by becoming yet another killing of a helpless individual.
No truly civilized and humane society executes the helpless. To do so is to resort to barbarism. There must be lines beyond which we will not cross, even in the name of seeking justice or a greater good. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized this when they ruled in 2002 against executing the mentally retarded in Atkins v. Virginia. It is now time for Virginia to recognize it.
If the good people of Virginia saw fit to sentence 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui to life in prison, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine can do no less than commute Walton's sentence to life in prison. Certainly, he should not be put to death.