On March 28, Judge Michael Hogan of Pittsburg County ruled that James Ryder is incompetent to be executed after a hearing where experts established Mr. Ryder’s serious mental illness. “[We are] relieved the court reached the only logical conclusion… James has no rational understanding of why Oklahoma plans to execute him,” said Mr. Ryder’s attorney, Emma Rolls, following the decision. “James has suffered from schizophrenia for nearly 40 years and has little connection to objective reality.” Mr. Ryder, 62, was the first scheduled execution of 2024 in Oklahoma before the Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay in December, ordering the hearing because Mr. Ryder had “raised substantial doubt as to his competency to be executed.”  

Over two days, Judge Hogan heard substantial evidence of Mr. Ryder’s delusions. Mr. Ryder believes that the execution will only kill his body, while his soul “will go into an alien body which will be better than a human body.” He told a psychologist that he is “likely the only heterosexual male on earth” and that the U.S. government will collapse, enabling him to go to Russia and fulfill his duty to “raise a heterosexual son.” Prison records documented over twenty years of hallucinations and troubling behavior such as hoarding, eating rotten food, and “not showering for years.” Judge Hogan wrote that he could “go on ad nauseum discussing the irrational thought processes of Mr. Ryder but that is not needed” to find him incompetent. 

The state had argued that Mr. Ryder was competent to be executed, and a spokesperson for Attorney General Gentner Drummond said after the decision that Oklahoma “will continue working to restore competency so justice can be served.” However, Ms. Rolls urged the state to “cease any further efforts” to carry out the execution, as Mr. Ryder’s condition “has deteriorated significantly over the years and will only continue to worsen.” Even the warden supervising Mr. Ryder, Jim Farris, has expressed concerns about Mr. Ryder’s competency; he wrote in a 2022 letter to the district attorney’s office that Mr. Ryder “may have become insane during his incarceration.”

The Supreme Court has held that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed if he does not have a “rational understanding” of the reason for his execution. That determination focuses on a specific period of time before the execution, so a person who is found incompetent can in theory be later found competent and executed. However, the process of “restoring competency” raises serious ethical and practical concerns for lawyers and medical professionals. For prisoners with severe mental disorders, a period of lucidity is often the exception, not the norm. Most states allow the forcible medication of death-sentenced prisoners to address safety concerns, including with psychotropic drugs, while non-incarcerated people typically have the right to refuse treatment. And the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics prohibits physician participation in executions, including “treating a condemned prisoner who has been declared incompetent to be executed for the purpose of restoring competence.” The Code affirms that the medical profession is “dedicated to preserving life when there is hope of doing so.”