Chicago Tribune
February 19, 2002

Executing Alexander Williams

Alexander Williams, a chronic paranoid schizophrenic, believes he is under "demon attack." He thinks Sigourney Weaver is God. He claims insects removed his left eye and substituted a shell.

Williams is too insane to be executed. So prison officials in Georgia have been forcing medication on him to make him less insane and delusional by Wednesday at 7 p.m., when he is scheduled to die by lethal injection for the 1986 rape and murder of a 16-year-old girl.

Georgia law prohibits executions of the mentally retarded, but not the mentally ill. And though the U.S. Supreme Court has said insane individuals should not be executed, it never has directly addressed the issue of whether such individuals could be forcibly medicated in order to make them competent enough to be executed.

Yes, that's what's going on in Georgia: Medicating someone for the sole purpose of making him lucid enough to understand why he is about to be executed for an act he committed while bordering on insane. That is bizarre.

The high court has not yet ruled on whether the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders amounts to a violation of the 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, given today's standards of decency. Williams was just 17, still considered a minor, when he carried out his very adult crime. That made him too young to vote or drink, but despite his hallucinatory mind, not young enough to avoid being sentenced to death.

Society regards young people as different from old people for good reason: they lack the judgment and the impulse control that adults have. Brain research documents and underscores why we shouldn't hold juveniles to the same standards of culpability that we do adults.

It doesn't mean Alex Williams should be free to roam the streets. It means he should be locked away somewhere secure for the rest of his life.

But that probably won't happen, in large part because of a third aspect of this case that has been treated inexplicably by the courts like a piece of irrelevant trivia.

Williams' hideously incompetent trial attorney failed to bring up Williams' long history of abuse, abandonment and torture at the hands of his parents. That he frequently was kicked out of the house, sometimes naked. That his mother beat his toes with a hammer and a screwdriver, and struck him with various objects. That he regularly would be denied food and use of the bathroom.

Attorney O.L. Collins didn't bother bringing any of this up as mitigating evidence at sentencing. Instead he spent a mere 15 minutes instructing the jury to "do what you will" with his client.

Executing Alexander Williams will amount to nothing more than an act of hollow, cruel vengeance. The plunger will empty, and the state of Georgia will have one less problem on its hands--at the cost of diminishing all of us.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

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