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Spare Schizophrenic's Life

November 05, 2002

James Colburn was raped at 17 by a man who picked him up when he was hitchhiking. He began suffering delusions. He told his mother he saw a devil slither out of his stomach. Voices told him to kill himself or his family.

A psychiatrist diagnosed chronic paranoid schizophrenia and Colburn's relatives tried to commit him for long-term treatment. They failed; public officials said he wasn't an immediate danger to himself or others. Now 42, Colburn is on death row in Texas, imprisoned for the 1994 murder of 55-year-old Peggy Murphy. He is to be killed by lethal injection Wednesday. His lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution. It should do that.

Though the court in June banned the execution of the mentally retarded, it has yet to rule on whether the seriously mentally ill should also be spared. Some high court judges worry, with good reason, that lawyers and psychiatrists could wield dubious "disorders" in attempts to absolve virtually anyone of responsibility. Indeed, common sense suggests that the shakiest of lines distinguish insane murderers from the purely rational variety.

Texas, on the other hand, would be unequivocally coldblooded to execute Colburn for two simple reasons:

* His trial was unfair. The U.S. Constitution requires that defendants be physically and mentally competent to understand the charges against them. Colburn was given such high doses of a sedating antipsychotic that he slept through large parts of the trial.

* Executing him would be perverse. Society let Colburn live for years with severe mental illness. Now the state will finally address his illness, thoroughly medicating him to assure that he has a full grasp of what's happening when he is executed.

One of Colburn's jurors, Kimberly Queener, says she would not have voted for death had the jury been told just two facts: that schizophrenia and medications can cause a bland facial expression (something jurors had interpreted as a lack of remorse) and that the jury could have called for a sentence that would have kept the killer forever away from any future victims.

It's hard to blame Texas for feeling unmerciful toward a killer. But Colburn's case is exceptional. The Supreme Court should intervene. And people should grasp that allowing someone to suffer overwhelming mental illness is a prescription for tragedy.

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