by Max Brantley
Arkansas is a microcosm of what occurs in the very few remaining places that still utilize the death penalty.Legal representation is also an issue.
Three men, including Lee, are (or were) at least borderline intellectually disabled. One, Kenneth Williams, has an IQ of 70. Another, Bruce Ward, is likely legally insane; he thinks there are "little resurrected dogs" running around the prison and that "evil or demonic forces" are harassing him. Several of these men have (or in the case of Jack Jones, had) a debilitating mental illness, such as paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; others have brain damage.
As children, these men were raped and had parents who violently abused them. One poured boiling water on her son, another tar. Jason McGehee's father slit the throats of two pet dogs for sport. McGehee eventually got another dog, "Dusty," who he made his constant companion. He dressed the dog up, put the dog's birthday on his calendar, and had the dog sleep on his bed nightly. His stepfather kicked it to death, forcing McGehee to watch. Marcel Williams, executed earlier this week, had a mother who pimped him out for food stamps and lodging starting when he was 9. Like intellectual impairments or severe mental illness, this kind of childhood trauma has profound effects on brain development, functioning and judgment.
According to state and federal court pleadings that Lee's lawyers filed just before his execution, Lee's trial lawyers begged the trial judge — who at the time was having an affair with the trial prosecutor — to let them off the case over a conflict. So did Lee himself. The judge denied their requests. These lawyers conducted no investigation into Lee's life. His state post-conviction attorney abused substances during the hearing and literally uttered the words "blah blah blah" in court.
Eventually, a federal district court suggested that Lee receive a new attorney and a new appeal, and the Arkansas Supreme Court obliged. But his new lawyers fared no better. They missed a filing deadline and had two briefs returned for failure to comport with court rules. The Arkansas Supreme Court referred one attorney to the Committee on Professional Conduct. Lee's federal post-conviction team initially included the drunk lawyer, and later, a man who last year surrendered his law license to "prevent possible harm to clients" because he suffered from bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
What no jury or court ever heard is that Lee likely had an intellectual disability, fetal alcohol syndrome, and significant brain damage. Lawyers first discovered this devastating information this month, just before Lee's execution, when the American Civil Liberties Union intervened and finally looked into Lee's life history.