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Richard Taylor's Extraordinary Life Sentence

Cassandra Stubbs,
Director Capital Punishment Project,
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June 8, 2008

From the beginning,everything aboutrepresenting Richard Taylor has been extraordinary. I went to meetRichard for the first time in the spring of 2006 with my supervisor,John Holdridge, the director of the newly launched Capital PunishmentProject of the ACLU. Richard would be our Project’s first client. Wetraveled to see Richard with our Tennessee co-counsel, KellyGleason, speeding along the winding road to the Deberry Special Needsprison in Nashville in her red convertible. After the security checkand screening we walked through the long courtyard and passed severalgates to the building that holds maximum security inmates. AlthoughRichard was under a sentence of death, his mental illness kept him inthe Special Needs prison, rather than with the rest of the death rowinmates at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution down the road.The Special Needs unit holds maximum security, mentally ill inmateswhose tortured rantings form a constant sound backdrop.

When we walked into thelegalvisitation room, Richard greeted us wearing his signatureprescription sunglasses. He had been diagnosed by the prison withidiopathic photophobia — literally, a fear of light ofunknownorigin. Richard gave a psychiatrist a more specific explanation: heneeded the glasses to keep the police voices from controlling hismind. We introduced ourselves, nervous about how Richard, who isschizophrenic and delusional, might feel about his new lawyers. Richardbeamed at us — “I have been waiting my whole life tobe represented by the ACLU.”

Deciding to represent Richard waseasy — his case was chock-full of what seemed to us to beobviousconstitutional error. For us, his case showed many of thefundamental flaws with capital punishment, including how the criminaljustice system operates at its worst in the pressure cooker of deathpenalty cases. In 1981, at age 21 — while incarcerated andafterhe had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Richard Taylor stabbed21-year old prison guard Ronald Moore. A few months before thestabbing, the prison had stopped giving Richard his anti-psychoticmedications. Witnesses described the “wild” look onRichard face and said that he was raving, trembling and shaking. Theytold the police that afterwards, when they called his name,Richard turned and looked at them with the emptiest eyes, like no onewas home. In retaliation for the stabbing, the prison system movedRichard immediately, pre-trial, to death row in a notorious prisoncalled “The Walls.”

What happened next toRichard Taylorwhile he waited for trial is utterly shocking. Tennessee Departmentof Correction guards physically and psychologically tortured him. Aformer guard came forward in 1996 and signed an affidavit admittingthat the guards frequently beat Richard with a billy club, makingsure to use a phone book to avoid creating any visible marks. Theguards went into the air shaft behind his cell and pretended to beJesus talking to him, knowing he often heard voices that weren’tthere. They blasted Richard with water, deprived him of food andwater, and repeatedly threatened to kill Richard, showing him a sheetand promising to hang him in his cell. The torture went on foryears, stopping only after the guards themselves began to feel pityfor Richard because of his obvious mental illness.

After a guard came forwardabout thisabuse, a state court judge ordered a full investigation into theabuse. The prison, however, limited its investigation to the soleofficer who had come forward. Although the prison concluded that theabuse occurred, it responded only by suspending that officer forthree days. No other officers were punished and no criminal chargeswere filed.

While Richard was facingtorture in hiscell, his case was slowly moving through the courts. He wasconvicted in 1984 of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Histrial lawyers tried to raise his insanity and incompetency —pointing out Richard’s bizarre behavior, including the fact that theshowed up for court one day with his underwear on his head. Thefirst trial judge nonetheless pushed the case forward without everholding a competency hearing to ensure that Richard was capable ofstanding trial. Thirteen years later, in 1997 after years ofintensive investigation and legal work, Richard’s case was finallyoverturned on appeal and sent back to the trial level. Thepost-conviction trial judge found Richard’s first trial lawyersineffective for failing to obtain a competency hearing and forfailing to thoroughly investigate his long and well-documentedhistory of mental illness. After nine days of hearing and nine daysof watching Richard in the court room, the judge also concluded thatRichard was incompetent to stand trial.

For the next few years,Richard waitedin prison from death row — despite the fact that he had wonhis newtrial. His lawyers had to fight to get him transferred to the statemental hospital charged with evaluating and treating incompetentdefendants. After two years at the state hospital and under veryhigh doses of anti-psychotic medications, the doctors therepronounced him finally fit to stand trial — but warned thathisfragile state could decompose.

Richard’s mind is full ofwhat to himseem to him to be obvious truths —what the rest of us wouldcalldelusions. For example, in Richard’s mind other prison inmates whohave been executed have come back from death and are walking thehallways. He is suspicious of all lawyers — fearing that theyarein fact working for his execution under the control of the “unseenforce.” And he has always believed that he alone is capable ofpresenting a brilliant trial defense. Based on this belief, Richardhas said for decades that he wants to represent himself.

In 2003 a new trial judgedeclared thatRichard seemed fine. He found that Richard was competent to standtrial and granted him his wish to represent himself. This decisionput in motion the sad spectacle that was Richard Taylor’s secondcapital murder trial. Delusional and highly sedated onanti-psychotic medications, Richard faced his capital murder trialalone. He wore his prison clothes and his trusty sunglasses,declining pen and paper. He presented no defense — putting onnoevidence, calling no witnesses, and waiving closing argument.

As we worked on preparingthe appealbrief, we were overwhelmed by the number of legal errors and sheerunfairness of the trial. The jury never heard any of the evidenceabout Richard’s horrible childhood or his serious mental illnessbefore deciding whether he should live or die. We debated which ofthe claims was the most compelling — was it the fact that thejudgeheld a competency hearing when Richard didn’t have a lawyer, or thefact that the judge ordered that he wasn’t allowed to stop hismedication, a major depressant, even though it was like takingsleeping pills before going to work?

The Tennessee Court ofCriminal Appealsagreed that the trial was full of constitutional error —ultimatelyoverturning Richard’s sentence of death on five separate grounds. WhenI went to tell Richard the good news, I found him smiling. Hetold me that one of the guards had let him know in the morning. Hetold her he didn’t believe it and he wasn’t convinced until shebrought him a newspaper announcing the news.

The best day, though, wasthe day Iwent to DeBerry to tell Richard that the prosecutor had agreed tooffer him a life sentence plea. Richard slumped down in his chair,literally shaking with happiness. He told me that he had spent everyyear since 1981 waiting to be executed. Without a death sentence, hewould have “a whole new life,” no matter if that life wasin prison. He just kept shaking his head, telling me what great newsit was.

On Tuesday, June 3, 2008,we went tothe Williamson County courthouse for the plea. I traveled the 30miles from Nashville to Franklin with Kelly, my co-counsel, and wasso nervous I kept dropping my keys and pens. Richard was transportedby the guards and told us right away that he was nervous, a factconfirmed by the mix of worry and hope of his pale expression. Thecourt had scheduled us along with dozens of regular misdemeanor andfelony cases, all set for pleas, arraignments, and statusconferences. The courtroom was full of attorneys and clients, whoeach stood when they were called on the roll. There was a noticeablesilence when Richard’s case was called. We knew that things weremoving a good direction when the judge asked me to come up since I”had traveled all the way from North Carolina,” and thenlet me know that he had approved my application to represent Richardas an out-of-state lawyer.

The entire front row ofseats wasoccupied by lawyers who have represented Richard Taylor over the past27 years. It was a like the Tennessee Hall of Fame of death penaltylawyers: Bill Redick, a seasoned lawyer was appointed 27 years agoand represented Richard at his first trial, and Brad MacLean,Richard’s lead attorney in the post-conviction case, both of whom arenow at the Tennessee Justice Project; Henry Martin, another ofRichard’s appellate lawyers and the Federal Public Defender forMiddle Tennessee; Kelly Gleason, with the capital post-convictionoffice, who wrote Richard’s post-trial motions and represented him onappeal, the list goes on.

While we waited to finishfilling outthe plea paperwork, the district attorney asked me why so manyattorneys had come from Nashville “just” for the plea. Theplea agreement in this case — which would finally protectRichardTaylor from execution — came after 27 years of intense legalworkby more than 20 capital lawyers through two trials, six differentappellate stages, after the brutal physical and psychological abuseof Richard Taylor, and when Richard Taylor, still delusional andstill severely mental ill, was close to 50 years old.

When the Judge calledRichard’s case,Richard leaned over the desk, fully focused on the judge. Heanswered each question respectfully, “yes, your Honor,” or”no, your Honor.” When the judge announced that he wasaccepting the plea and sentencing Richard to life in prison, Richardthanked him.

We congratulated him in thehallwayimmediately after the plea. He had an enormous grin — he wasbeginning his new, extraordinary life.

It was more than worth thedrive fromNashville.

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