Guest column: Delusional on Death Row

Arkansas plans to kill mentally ill man

Posted: April 17, 2017 at 1:15 p.m.
Updated: April 17, 2017 at 1:23 p.m.

Bruce Ward does not believe he will be executed Monday. In his bizarre and delusional world view, he believes he will be allowed to leave prison to great riches and acclaim, as his incarceration is part of a Satanic conspiracy, which God is allowing to test his faith and prepare him for a special mission as a preacher.

Mr. Ward experiences visual and auditory hallucinations, including visions of God, his deceased father, and demon dogs, who have sat at the foot of his bed since he was a child.

For most of his life, Mr. Ward has suffered from schizophrenia, a severe psychotic disorder characterized by delusions, hallucinations, disorganized thoughts, speech and behavior, and other disturbing symptoms.

Under the U.S. Constitution and Arkansas law, Mr. Ward is not mentally competent to be executed. In 1986, in Ford v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rule -- dating back hundreds of years to English common law -- that people who have lost their sanity cannot be executed. In 2007, the Court explained that a death row prisoner is competent for execution only if he has a rational understanding of the punishment he is about to suffer and the reason he is to receive it.

The law is clear that Mr. Ward cannot be executed within constitutional bounds. His severe mental illness and break with reality render him incompetent for execution. He has no rational understanding of the punishment he is scheduled to suffer or the reason why he is to suffer it.

The roots of Mr. Ward's mental illness began to show up in childhood, a time in the 1960's when there was little intervention or treatment for children like him. His mother, who likely also suffered from mental illness, subjected him to cruel punishments, such as covering him in tar and then putting him in ice-cold water.

Decades have passed and there has still been no treatment for Mr. Ward. In fact, Supermax solitary confinement has made his mental illness much worse, according to the doctor who has examined him. For almost 30 years, Mr. Ward has eaten, slept, showered and used the bathroom in a cell about half the size of a car parking space. He has been deprived of human interaction, left alone with his own bizarre delusions, and has only been out of his cell two or three times a year.

The staff at the facility where Mr. Ward is held has a "no involvement" policy regarding death row inmates and mental health services. The lack of treatment and isolation has ensured that Mr. Ward's mental illness has only further deteriorated.

Reasonable minds can disagree about the death penalty, but surely there is unanimity that if we are to have it, we must follow the constitutional procedures that govern the horrific act of ending a human life. With no judicial supervision, Arkansas gives the Director of the Department of Correction -- the person responsible for carrying out executions -- sole discretion to decide whether a person to be executed presents a serious question of incompetence. Giving this responsibility to the one person who is the most adverse to the prisoner -- his executioner -- does not comport with fairness.

Even though the Director has had knowledge of Mr. Ward diagnosis and lifetime history of severe mental illness, she decided that he was competent without an examination by a qualified mental health professional. Rather than being a neutral decision-maker, she is a defendant in Mr. Ward's legal challenges and the supervisor of the staff that has consistently neglected to treat Mr. Ward's severe mental illness. This does not comport with fairness.

The rationale for the ban on executing insane prisoners varies. Some say that severe mental illness is its own form of punishment. Others say executing people who are insane fails to deter others. Still others believe that it is wrong to send a person to the next world if he is not able to repent or get right with God before he dies. On a basic level, such executions offend our sense of humanity.

There is a simple solution in this case. Mr. Ward can be confined to life in prison without any possibility of release. This result would keep the public safe, hold him accountable for his crime, and show respect for the fundamental dignity of life.

Commentary on 04/15/2017