- Two death row inmates, both of whom were Black, were executed last Thursday.
- One suffered from mental illness and the other from an intellectual disability.
- An expert told Insider that the death penalty is reserved for the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”
On January 27, 2022, two Black men were executed: one in Oklahoma and the other in Alabama. One of them, Donald Grant, had a debilitating mental illness. The other, Matthew Reeves, had an intellectual disability.
Advocates against the death penalty say that their cases are examples of capital punishments being placed on particularly vulnerable individuals.
Robert Dunham, executive director of Death Penalty Information Center, a non-partisan organization with a focus on the death penalty, told Insider that Oklahoma and Alabama “are rushing to carry out executions,” adding that the haste “interferes with fair litigation of issues in a person’s case.”
In these cases, executions happened despite advocates’ concerns that they were mentally unfit.
Alabama executed Matthew Reeves despite his intellectual disability
Reeves, 44, was convicted of killing a man that gave him and some friends a ride and robbing him of $360, the Associated Press reported. Reeves danced and mimicked the man at a party after the killing, according to the report.
Reeves’ defense team argued that he had an intellectual disability — demonstrated by an IQ score in the 60s — and should therefore be reprieved of the death sentence, according to the AP.
An intellectual disability presents “significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills,” and “originates before the age of 18,” according to The American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
Reeves and his legal team claim that he was unable to understand the form for choosing his preferred method of death — lethal injection or nitrogen hypoxia — and consequently left it blank, The News Observer reported.
Alabama scheduled Reeves for execution with the lethal injection protocol because he did not select an alternative method, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
An Alabama judge issued a stay of the execution, and an appeals court upheld it on the basis that his disability had not been accommodated during the process to select an execution method, CBS News reported.
But the state of Alabama brought the case to the US Supreme Court, which decided in a 5-4 vote that Reeves’s application for a stay of execution “should be denied,” according to court documents.
In a three-page dissent, the four objecting judges — Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayer — argued that the Court should not have allowed “Reeves’s execution by lethal injection to go forward.”
“The State will soon be ready to execute Reeves by nitrogen hypoxia. A short delay cannot justify dismissing, as the Court does today, the strength of Reeves’s suit — or the careful work of the judges primarily responsible for assessing his case,” they added.
The decision came an hour and a half after the scheduled execution.
Reeves refused to eat the day before and of his death and was only seen drinking a Sprite, according to AL.com.
“The majority decision of the Supreme Court to vacate a stay imposed by the lower courts enabled the execution to proceed without a full examination of the question of the effect of his mental capacity on his ability to elect an execution method,” a spokesperson from the United Nation Human Rights Office told Insider.
Oklahoma executed Donald Grant despite his schizophrenia diagnosis
Grant, 46, was convicted of murdering two hotel workers during a robbery to get bond money for his girlfriend in 2001, according to The Oklahoman.
He ordered sesame chicken, shrimp fried rice, and egg rolls the night before he was executed.
Associated Press reporter Sean Murphy attended the execution. According to him, Grant’s last words were: “Yo God, I got this … No medication, I didn’t take anything. Brooklyn for life.”
Grant was declared dead at 10:16 a.m. on Thursday, January 27, NBC News reported.
Grant was diagnosed with schizophrenia at least twice, was abused throughout his childhood, and was placed in special education classes while in school, according to NPR.
His mother drank throughout her pregnancy with Grant, which “severely impaired his brain development and left him with lifelong disabilities,” a doctor found. His father also slammed Grant’s head into a metal pole multiple times a week, Grant’s brother told NPR.
His attorneys argued that “executing someone as mentally ill and brain-damaged as Donald Grant is out of step with evolving standards of decency,” according to The Oklahoman.
The death penalty is reserved for the ‘most vulnerable of the vulnerable’
The number of people sentenced to death each year in the United States dropped from 295 in 1998 to 18 in 2021.
But critics note those who have been sentenced to death are often people who experienced chronic or severe trauma, suffer from severe mental illness, or struggle with intellectual disabilities.
Forty-three percent of death row inmates executed between 2000 and 2015 suffered from a diagnosed mental illness, according to a 2017 investigation by The Washington Post. The outlet also reported that 20% were diagnosed with a personality disorder, and 8.9% with antisocial personality disorder in particular.
Nearly 40% of inmates were abused as children, The Post added.
“What we have seen over the years is that people who are being executed are not the worst of the worst,” Dunham told Insider. “They are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.”
According to data from the DPIC, 41% of death row inmates in the US are Black, despite being 13% of the US population.
Aurelie Placais, director of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, agreed.
“All over the world, where capital punishment is applied, it is not used against the worst criminals, but against the poorest and the most marginalized people in society,” she told Insider.