“The world will not be a safer place because Mr. Clayton has been executed.”
—Elizabeth Unger Carlyle, attorney for Cecil Clayton
haven’t watched much television news in the last few days, but I watched enough to know that apparently television producers were much too busy with other things—like the struggles of a slimy Benjamin Netanyahu to remain in office or the controversy over the stupid opinions of fashion designers Dolce & Gabbana or the resignation from Congress of an egoistic liar —to devote much time to the pending execution of a Missouri man named Cecil Clayton, who definitely—and cold-bloodedly—murdered, in 1996, Christopher Lee Castetter, a 29-year-old southwest Missouri sheriff’s deputy who had a wife and three kids.
It’s too late now anyway. Clayton is dead. Missouri killed him last night at 9:13.
But some people did put up a fight for Cecil Clayton. No, that’s not right. Some people put up a fight not for Cecil Clayton but for civilization, a fight to prevent the state from doing, in the name of the people of Missouri, something that appears to me to be at least as inhumane and indecent and as cold-blooded as the horrific murder of Deputy Castetter so long ago. In fact, what Missouri did last night may be a worse act than what Cecil Clayton did because, presumably, all of the people involved in executing Clayton were in possession of their entire brains.
Read this paragraph from a news article on the execution:
Clayton’s lawyers argued in last-minute appeals that the 74-year-old had dementia and lingering effects from a 1972 sawmill accident that forced surgeons to remove about 8 percent of his brain, including one-fifth of the frontal lobe portion governing impulse control and judgment.
Read that again. The killer, when he committed his crime, was missing part of his brain—after a piece of wood had pierced his skull—a part of his brain that has a lot to say about the things we do—and don’t do. The injury and subsequent operation changed his personality. We knew that. But we, we Missourians, killed him anyway.
Among the people on television who bothered covering the then-pending execution of Cecil Clayton was Rachel Maddow. She presented this image from an MRI done on Clayton’s brain. The MRI was done here in Joplin at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, the hospital destroyed by the 2011 tornado:
As you can see very clearly, a substantial part of Clayton’s frontal lobe is missing. Now read a little about what that means:
According to Dr. Lincoln F. Ramirez, a senior neurosurgeon at the Wisconsin School of Medicine, the frontal lobe “allows the individual to judge the consequences of his actions or actions-to-be, and then modify them on the basis of this judgment.” He went on: “You’re also losing connections to other parts of the brain,” the consequences of which may be unknown.
The frontal lobe is closely associated with criminal behavior. William Barr, director of the neuropsychology division of New York University’s neurology department, says, “If you’re coming up with a theory about what part of the brain would cause someone to do something bad, it would be there.” He adds: “When I see these cases, one of the first questions I ask is: Is the frontal lobe damaged?”
Compare that scientific understanding of the human brain and how injury to it affects behavior—and the conclusions that civilized people should draw from that science—with the following results from a poll done recently by the Joplin Globe:
Almost 7 out of 10 of the locals who voted (I have no idea how many actually participated) said the state should kill a man who lost a part of his brain that doctors know is closely associated with criminal behavior and that “allows the individual to judge the consequences of his actions or actions-to-be, and then modify them on the basis of this judgment.”
But these locals, many of them ignorant, many of them angry, many of them both, are not directly responsible for killing the cop-killing Cecil Clayton. Nor is Deputy Castetter’s family at fault, a family who, quite naturally, wanted to see Clayton pay for his crime. His brother said,
We know this execution isn’t going to bring Chris back. But it destroys an evil person that would otherwise be walking this earth.
If it were one of my brothers who had been killed the way Castetter had been killed, I admit to you I would likely feel the same way. I probably wouldn’t be tempted to give the benefit of the doubt to the killer, no matter how much of his brain was missing, no matter how much I understood the science behind it all. I get the human emotions involved here.
But our laws, and our civilization that springs from those laws, ought to be more than emotion-based. We shouldn’t be so eager to use the power of the state to kill someone without at least considering not only the due process rights of the accused, but what it means to kill someone who was never in his right mind since his accident in 1972. And there are people in positions of power whose job it is to give those things proper, unemotional consideration. And it is those people who are directly responsible for the state murdering a brain-injured, mentally-impaired man.
Let me start with Missouri’s Attorney General Chris Koster. This is his entire official statement on the execution of Cecil Clayton:
“As one who has carried a badge for most of my adult life, I share the outrage of every Missourian at the murder of law enforcement officer, Deputy Christopher Castetter. Cecil Clayton tonight has paid the ultimate price for his terrible crime.”
Yes. We all know it was a terrible crime and that Clayton paid the ultimate price. But where is the moral justification for what the state did? Chris Koster isn’t a right-wing Republican. He is a Democrat. And Missouri prosecutors resisted arguments based on science that Clayton had an IQ of 71 and suffered from hallucinations, stemming from that accident in 1972. He also suffered from dementia, which, along with everything else, certainly affected his ability to understand what was happening to him on Tuesday and before. NBC News summarized the state’s position:
Missouri had argued that medical experts found Clayton understood why he was being executed and that meant he was competent to face the needle. They maintained that his intellectual deficits had to be present before he turned 18 to let him escape execution and that he waited too long to raise his claim.
Apparently that is the law in Missouri. If you claim that “intellectual deficits” had something to do with your crime, those deficits better have been present, magically, before you turned 18 or too bad for you. Missouri doesn’t much care about the state of your brain after you turn 18, sawmill accident or no sawmill accident. And executing a mentally disabled man for not raising a legal claim in a timely fashion is a remarkable display of moral blindness.
But Koster’s inhumane disregard for the science in this case, and his failure to explain the morality behind the state killing a disabled man, could have been overturned by another Democrat, Governor Jay Nixon, who had the power to grant clemency for Clayton. Instead, he issued a much longer statement that touched on “the nature of the crime,” which, again, we all agree was horrific, and which we all agree should have kept Clayton imprisoned for the rest of his life. Nixon also said,
I have given extensive consideration to Clayton’s competency. Clayton was found competent to stand trial in 1997 for the murder of Deputy Castetter and again in 2006 to bring his federal habeas action. In 2014, at the request of the Director of the Department of Corrections, Clayton was comprehensively examined by a certified forensic examiner with the Department of Mental Health and determined to be competent to be executed. I accept that finding.
The problem is that Nixon ignored the due process problems surrounding Clayton’s case, as summarized by Mother Jones:
Missouri law states that a person cannot be executed if, as a result of mental disease or defect, he or she is unable to “understand the nature and purpose of the punishment about to be imposed upon him.” However, state law offers no mechanism for the defendant to set up a competency hearing after trial. The fact that Clayton was tried and sentenced before receiving an evaluation is complicating efforts to save him from the executioner, and creating what his lawyers call a “procedural mess.”
Nixon had a chance to not only clean up the mess, but to stop the moral madness. He instead said:
This crime was brutal and there exists no question of Clayton’s guilt. My denial of clemency upholds the court’s decision to impose a sentence of death.
I ask that the people of Missouri remember Deputy Sheriff Christopher Castetter and keep his family in their thoughts and prayers.
He’s right that the crime was brutal and that there was no question about who did it. And he’s right that we should remember Deputy Castetter’s family and the fact that the young man died in the line of duty and that he left behind a wife and children. He’s right about all of that. But Nixon and Koster and other officials involved in this state execution are all wrong to ignore who Cecil Clayton was before that industrial accident and who he became after it happened. Mother Jones puts it well:
In 1972, Clayton was a sober, religious husband and father working at a sawmill in Purdy, Missouri. One day, a piece of wood flew from his blade, piercing his skull and entering his brain. Doctors eventually had to remove nearly one-fifth of his frontal lobe—the part of the brain that is crucial to decision making, mood, and impulse control. Clayton was completely transformed: His IQ dropped to 76, and he developed serious depression, hallucinations, confusion, paranoia, and thoughts of suicide. He relapsed into alcoholism, and his wife divorced him.
Clayton was officially diagnosed with chronic brain syndrome in 1983, which includes psychosis, paranoia, depression, schizophrenia, and decreased mental function. The severity of his condition rendered him unable to work. In 1979, a doctor said he was “just barely making it outside of an institution.” In 1984, another doctor found him to be “totally disabled” and the government placed him on disability benefits.
Twelve years later Clayton got in a fight with his ex-girlfriend in Cassville, Mo., and when Deputy Christopher Castetter responded, Clayton opened up the door of the patrol car, its motor still running, and shot the deputy in the head. Castetter never had time to unsnap his weapon from its holster. I’ll say it one more time: Yes, that is an unspeakably horrific crime. And, yes, Clayton should have been locked up and put away for life.
But how can we, the people of this state, justify killing a man who was himself the unfortunate victim of an accident, an accident that cost him an important part of his brain, an accident that fundamentally changed who he was and what he was to become?
Shame on all those responsible, including the state’s top two Democrats and the Missouri Supreme Court—by a 4-3 decision it declined to intervene—as well as the U.S. Supreme Court—the five conservatives predictably said no to a stay of execution— for this uncivilized act that does nothing, nothing whatsoever, to bring back Deputy Christopher Lee Castetter or honor his heroic service to his community.
All we, we the people of Missouri, did on Tuesday night at 9:13 was kill a disabled old man with a life-changing hole in his brain.
And our civilization, with its focus on demagogic foreign leaders and stupid fashion designers and egomaniacal congressmen, slouches on.
[Photo Credit of Koster and Nixon: KBIA]