Mentally ill in Alabama are being put to death first, because they're mentally ill

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015.

Alabama has been torturing poor people for a long time with its discriminatory and disgusting death penalty. But, at this moment in history, as the state finalizes its protocol to gas its condemned citizens to death — casting a ghoulish pall over Alabama and America — the despicableness of modern day capital punishment has sunk to a shockingly sad, demoralizing new low; mentally ill human beings in Alabama are being put to death first, before other condemned prisoners, primarily because they’re mentally ill.

Borrowing from H.L. Mencken as I did in these pages in April of 2020 — to emphasize how “COVID-19 exposes the death penalty’s selfishness” — what “dangerous and malignant excrescence upon the face of humanity” but capital punishment could be more selfish, more merciless, more morally bankrupt, that it could cause government officials to kill the most mentally vulnerable first, because they can?

Perhaps you’re thinking, at least I sure as hell hope you’re thinking, I must have it wrong. Surely Alabama’s leaders, elected representatives and senators in Congress from all states — even conservative “law and order” ones — and the president of the United States, who pledged to try to abolish the death penalty (but is failing miserably as I’ve written elsewhere), wouldn’t allow mentally ill people to face execution first on account of their mental illness.

But that pernicious phenomenon, that anathema to human rights, that affront to human dignity, that insult to justice — that’s exactly what’s occurring with the death penalty right now in Alabama. It’s the monstrous pachyderm of immorality marauding over the name of the good people in the Heart of Dixie that no one’s discussing, or, at least, not discussing enough.

Because as I explained in these pages in February of last year, about the then-impending execution of Willie B. Smith III, a brain-damaged Black man whose execution was stayed several months before ultimately being carried out in October: “Under Alabama law effective June 1, 2018, death-sentenced prisoners in Alabama were given 30 days to elect, in writing, if they wanted to be gassed to death via nitrogen hypoxia (a new, unconscionable, untested method of execution that deprives the condemned of oxygen, replacing it with an allegedly precisely regulated purified form of nitrogen) or killed in the more pedestrian, old-fashioned way: with the state’s often-bungled, always barbaric lethal injection protocol it’s used to torture poor people for a long time.”

Smith was executed when he was because he didn’t timely “opt-in” to being gassed to death via nitrogen hypoxia. As I advanced at the time, if Smith had just opted-in when he had had the chance, he wouldn’t have been executed because Alabama hasn’t finalized its nitrogen hypoxia protocol which then also will have to withstand significant, time-consuming legal challenges.

I wrote that Smith’s execution was a step backward for racial equality in Alabama — and America — and clearly, it was. That’s partly why, last April, I urged conscientious leaders in business, in politics, and in sports, to leverage capitalism’s pursuit of the dollar in order to “kill Alabama’s death penalty with capitalism.”

Unfortunately President Biden, billionaire anti-death penalty crusader-investors like Richard Branson, and other power-players and influence-brokers have yet to embrace this simple, straightforward, powerful idea.

Indeed no one has advanced anything that might put a stop to Alabama’s latest death penalty depravity: slating the most mentally ill human beings for extermination first because, as a result of their mental illness, they make for easy pickings. Easy pickings because, during a month in 2018, these mentally ill men couldn’t be brought to the realization that — tactically, logically, and most critically, legally — it was in their best interest, with staying alive even if only for a bit longer being the primary objective, to “opt-in” to being gassed to death, as repugnant and incomprehensible as that sounds, and in fact, is, to the healthiest of minds.

So which mentally ill inhabitant of Alabama’s death row will be put to death next primarily as a result of his mental illness, which, in turn, deprived him a fair chance to appreciate the Kafkaesque-merits of electing execution by gassing?

Meet Matthew Reeves, an intellectually disabled Black man like Willie Smith was, now scheduled by the Alabama Supreme Court to be executed by lethal injection; Reeves will be strapped to a gurney and pumped full of noxious chemicals on January 27 for a murder he committed when he was just eighteen — twenty-five years ago.

The Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported in November: “Reeves’ attorneys have argued that he (has) intellectual disabilities, with an IQ score in the 60s.” Further, Lyman observed “Reeves is pursuing a separate motion saying his intellectual disability prevented him from opting into execution by nitrogen hypoxia during a brief window in 2018 when the method was offered to death row inmates.”

Prophetically, Lyman wrote that Willie Smith raised “similar issues in his case, but a federal appeals court ultimately rejected them, (and) Smith was executed."

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveCooperEsq

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Mentally ill on Alabama's death row are being executed first