John Kasich took the appropriate step this week in granting Abdul Hamin Awkal a two-week reprieve from execution. The governor’s action allows Judge Stuart Friedman of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to conduct a hearing to determine whether Awkal is mentally competent to face the death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court already has held that juveniles and the developmentally disabled should not be executed. The same rationale must apply to those suffering from mental illness, reflecting changing standards of decency and fuller awareness of the affliction.
No question, Awkal committed a horrendous crime two decades ago, shooting and killing his estranged wife and her brother in a courthouse, where she had gone to file for divorce. Why haven’t the questions about his competency been answered yet? The lack of resolution isn’t a matter of attorney-driven delay. There exists genuine reason for doubt about the state taking the extreme step of capital punishment.
Awkal long has been afflicted with mental illness. He initially was found incompetent to stand trial for the killings. The use of medication opened the way for proceeding. He has been treated for psychosis and depression, diagnosed as having a schizoaffective disorder. When he waived appeals of his execution, a federal district court concluded he wasn’t competent to make such decisions.
How has his case moved this far — to the eve of execution? Courts ultimately have sided with those experts in mental health who have found Awkal legally competent. There is room for argument and disagreement. Thus, the Ohio Supreme Court and the state Parole Board concluded the execution should go forward. The governor earlier denied clemency.
What the governor also expressed is the importance of getting the decision right. If anything, the conflicting professional opinions about Awkal provide reason for restraint.
The record is plain enough: Awkal is delusional — to the extent that he believes he could have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks, that he has had plans to alter the war strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan and has communicated with the White House and the CIA. He contends that officials in high places have lost their jobs because of contact with him. He claims now that the CIA wants him dead and state prison officials have been torturing him.
The American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness argue against the execution of seriously mentally ill prisoners. Now the governor has given Ohio a chance to think again — about the merits of the Awkal case and, equally important, about what such an execution would say about all of us.