Blog of Rights

Richard Taylor's Extraordinary Life Sentence

By Cassandra Stubbs, ACLU Capital Punishment Project at 2:17pm

From the beginning, everything about representing Richard Taylor has been extraordinary. I went to meet Richard for the first time in the spring of 2006 with my supervisor, John Holdridge, the director of the newly launched Capital Punishment Project of the ACLU. Richard would be our Project's first client. We traveled to see Richard with our Tennessee co-counsel, Kelly Gleason, speeding along the winding road to the Deberry Special Needs prison in Nashville in her red convertible. After the security check and screening we walked through the long courtyard and passed several gates to the building that holds maximum security inmates. Although Richard was under a sentence of death, his mental illness kept him in the Special Needs prison, rather than with the rest of the death row inmates at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution down the road. The Special Needs unit holds maximum security, mentally ill inmates whose tortured rantings form a constant sound backdrop.

When we walked into the legal visitation room, Richard greeted us wearing his signature prescription sunglasses. He had been diagnosed by the prison with idiopathic photophobia — literally, a fear of light of unknown origin. Richard gave a psychiatrist a more specific explanation: he needed the glasses to keep the police voices from controlling his mind. We introduced ourselves, nervous about how Richard, who is schizophrenic and delusional, might feel about his new lawyers. Richard beamed at us — "I have been waiting my whole life to be represented by the ACLU."

Deciding to represent Richard was easy — his case was chock-full of what seemed to us to be obvious constitutional error. For us, his case showed many of the fundamental flaws with capital punishment, including how the criminal justice system operates at its worst in the pressure cooker of death penalty cases. In 1981, at age 21 — while incarcerated and after he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Richard Taylor stabbed 21-year old prison guard Ronald Moore. A few months before the stabbing, the prison had stopped giving Richard his anti-psychotic medications. Witnesses described the "wild" look on Richard face and said that he was raving, trembling and shaking. They told the police that afterwards, when they called his name, Richard turned and looked at them with the emptiest eyes, like no one was home. In retaliation for the stabbing, the prison system moved Richard immediately, pre-trial, to death row in a notorious prison called "The Walls."

What happened next to Richard Taylor while he waited for trial is utterly shocking. Tennessee Department of Correction guards physically and psychologically tortured him. A former guard came forward in 1996 and signed an affidavit admitting that the guards frequently beat Richard with a billy club, making sure to use a phone book to avoid creating any visible marks. The guards went into the air shaft behind his cell and pretended to be Jesus talking to him, knowing he often heard voices that weren't there. They blasted Richard with water, deprived him of food and water, and repeatedly threatened to kill Richard, showing him a sheet and promising to hang him in his cell. The torture went on for years, stopping only after the guards themselves began to feel pity for Richard because of his obvious mental illness.

After a guard came forward about this abuse, a state court judge ordered a full investigation into the abuse. The prison, however, limited its investigation to the sole officer who had come forward. Although the prison concluded that the abuse occurred, it responded only by suspending that officer for three days. No other officers were punished and no criminal charges were filed.

While Richard was facing torture in his cell, his case was slowly moving through the courts. He was convicted in 1984 of first degree murder and sentenced to death. His trial lawyers tried to raise his insanity and incompetency — pointing out Richard's bizarre behavior, including the fact that the showed up for court one day with his underwear on his head. The first trial judge nonetheless pushed the case forward without ever holding a competency hearing to ensure that Richard was capable of standing trial. Thirteen years later, in 1997 after years of intensive investigation and legal work, Richard's case was finally overturned on appeal and sent back to the trial level. The post-conviction trial judge found Richard's first trial lawyers ineffective for failing to obtain a competency hearing and for failing to thoroughly investigate his long and well-documented history of mental illness. After nine days of hearing and nine days of watching Richard in the court room, the judge also concluded that Richard was incompetent to stand trial.

For the next few years, Richard waited in prison from death row — despite the fact that he had won his new trial. His lawyers had to fight to get him transferred to the state mental hospital charged with evaluating and treating incompetent defendants. After two years at the state hospital and under very high doses of anti-psychotic medications, the doctors there pronounced him finally fit to stand trial — but warned that his fragile state could decompose.

Richard's mind is full of what to him seem to him to be obvious truths —what the rest of us would call delusions. For example, in Richard's mind other prison inmates who have been executed have come back from death and are walking the hallways. He is suspicious of all lawyers — fearing that they are in fact working for his execution under the control of the "unseen force." And he has always believed that he alone is capable of presenting a brilliant trial defense. Based on this belief, Richard has said for decades that he wants to represent himself.

In 2003 a new trial judge declared that Richard seemed fine. He found that Richard was competent to stand trial and granted him his wish to represent himself. This decision put in motion the sad spectacle that was Richard Taylor's second capital murder trial. Delusional and highly sedated on anti-psychotic medications, Richard faced his capital murder trial alone. He wore his prison clothes and his trusty sunglasses, declining pen and paper. He presented no defense — putting on no evidence, calling no witnesses, and waiving closing argument.

As we worked on preparing the appeal brief, we were overwhelmed by the number of legal errors and sheer unfairness of the trial. The jury never heard any of the evidence about Richard's horrible childhood or his serious mental illness before deciding whether he should live or die. We debated which of the claims was the most compelling — was it the fact that the judge held a competency hearing when Richard didn't have a lawyer, or the fact that the judge ordered that he wasn't allowed to stop his medication, a major depressant, even though it was like taking sleeping pills before going to work?

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the trial was full of constitutional error — ultimately overturning Richard's sentence of death on five separate grounds. When I went to tell Richard the good news, I found him smiling. He told me that one of the guards had let him know in the morning. He told her he didn't believe it and he wasn't convinced until she brought him a newspaper announcing the news.

The best day, though, was the day I went to DeBerry to tell Richard that the prosecutor had agreed to offer him a life sentence plea. Richard slumped down in his chair, literally shaking with happiness. He told me that he had spent every year since 1981 waiting to be executed. Without a death sentence, he would have "a whole new life," no matter if that life was in prison. He just kept shaking his head, telling me what great news it was.

On Tuesday, June 3, 2008, we went to the Williamson County courthouse for the plea. I traveled the 30 miles from Nashville to Franklin with Kelly, my co-counsel, and was so nervous I kept dropping my keys and pens. Richard was transported by the guards and told us right away that he was nervous, a fact confirmed by the mix of worry and hope of his pale expression. The court had scheduled us along with dozens of regular misdemeanor and felony cases, all set for pleas, arraignments, and status conferences. The courtroom was full of attorneys and clients, who each stood when they were called on the roll. There was a noticeable silence when Richard's case was called. We knew that things were moving a good direction when the judge asked me to come up since I "had traveled all the way from North Carolina," and then let me know that he had approved my application to represent Richard as an out-of-state lawyer.

The entire front row of seats was occupied by lawyers who have represented Richard Taylor over the past 27 years. It was a like the Tennessee Hall of Fame of death penalty lawyers: Bill Redick, a seasoned lawyer was appointed 27 years ago and represented Richard at his first trial, and Brad MacLean, Richard's lead attorney in the post-conviction case, both of whom are now at the Tennessee Justice Project; Henry Martin, another of Richard's appellate lawyers and the Federal Public Defender for Middle Tennessee; Kelly Gleason, with the capital post-conviction office, who wrote Richard's post-trial motions and represented him on appeal, the list goes on.

While we waited to finish filling out the plea paperwork, the district attorney asked me why so many attorneys had come from Nashville "just" for the plea. The plea agreement in this case — which would finally protect Richard Taylor from execution — came after 27 years of intense legal work by more than 20 capital lawyers through two trials, six different appellate stages, after the brutal physical and psychological abuse of Richard Taylor, and when Richard Taylor, still delusional and still severely mental ill, was close to 50 years old.

When the Judge called Richard's case, Richard leaned over the desk, fully focused on the judge. He answered each question respectfully, "yes, your Honor," or "no, your Honor." When the judge announced that he was accepting the plea and sentencing Richard to life in prison, Richard thanked him.

We congratulated him in the hallway immediately after the plea. He had an enormous grin — he was beginning his new, extraordinary life.

It was more than worth the drive from Nashville.

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