Unless Edwin Hart Turner gets clemency from the governor or a last-minute stay, he will be executed on February 8 by the state of Mississippi.
Turner murdered two men in botched hold-ups. His attorneys do not claim that he is innocent of their murders, and no one can diminish the tragic loss to two families. But executing Turner should be off the table: he is severely mentally ill, and it violates the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and international human rights law to execute the mentally ill. Virtually every mainstream organization representing mental health experts and families of the mentally ill says so, and the American Bar Association (which does not take a position on the death penalty itself) agrees.
Turner is and was unquestionably mentally ill. He suffered in such an obvious and unmistakable way from his illness that the kids in my neighborhood would have called him “crazy.” When he was 18 he tried to shoot himself with a rifle, suffering such disfiguring wounds to his face that he thereafter wrapped a bath towel around his head, refusing to eat or drink even in front of his family because to do so he’d have to remove the towel. He wore it the night of the robberies and killings, which of course made him immediately identifiable.
Hart Turner came by his mental illness both by genetics and environment. His family has a history of psychosis and suicide, and his childhood was marked by abandonment, loss and violent abuse. He was hospitalized a number of times for mental illness, including a three month court-ordered stretch after another suicide attempt in his early twenties. In the six weeks between that hospitalization and the night of the homicides, he got sicker and sicker, staying up all night, crying uncontrollably and telling his friends that he was worried that something bad would happen. The crime itself was irrational, as Turner had no need of money. He had no criminal history. The jury that sentenced him to death heard almost none of this.
In 1765, the great Sir William Blackstone wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that a law enacted in Henry VIII’s “bloody reign” permitting the execution of a madman was “savage and inhuman” and rightly repealed by the enlightened members of his own century. Those same 18th century Englishmen used to go for entertainment to the notorious Bethlehem Royal Hospital – better known as Bedlam – to stare at the “lunatics” held captive there. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental illness and the deep and terrible pain it inflicts on sufferers – but not far enough, at least not in Mississippi. Most mentally ill people are not violent. Those who are should not be executed.