Lawyers, Advocates Seek Halt to Execution of Stephen West in Tennessee

Advocates from a variety of backgrounds are urging Tennessee Governor Bill Lee to stop the August 15, 2019 execution of Stephen West (pictured), saying that West did not commit the murder and urging the governor not to execute a man who is severely mentally ill. [UPDATE: Governor Lee denied clemency and West was executed on August 15.]

In a July clemency petition that is pending before the governor, West’s lawyers argue for mercy based upon his innocence of murder and his debilitating psychological vulnerabilities. Though they concede that West was present at the murders of Wanda Romines and her daughter, Sheila Romines, and that he raped Sheila, West’s lawyers maintain that his co-defendant, Ronnie Martin, fatally stabbed the victims. The petition says that because of the chronic extreme abuse and trauma he experienced as a child, “Steve was not psychologically equipped to deal with the terrible situation he found himself in” and disassociated when he saw Martin killing the women.

The clemency petition asks what it calls “[a]n important question”—”if Steve did not intend for either victim to be killed, how could he just stand by and watch while Martin did? The answer to this question,” the petition suggests, “lies in Steve’s own tragic background.” The petition describes the relentless abuse and neglect West endured, which included his mother beating him so hard with a broom that it snapped, his parents denying him food, and ongoing beatings that resulted in his ankles being broken at least seven times. The extreme trauma, the petition says, caused or exacerbated West’s severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. West’s parents retained a lawyer to defend him at trial, but instructed counsel not to discuss or present evidence relating to his family background. As a result, his jury never heard this evidence.

The clemency plea has received support from a Vanderbilt law and psychiatry professor, four great-great-granddaughters of Tennessee Gov. Albert Houston Roberts, and religious groups.

In an August 9 op-ed for The Tennessean, Vanderbilt University law and psychiatry professor Christopher Slobogin argues that West’s case exemplifies why executing people with severe mental illness is “highly questionable.” Slobogin writes that West deserves serious punishment if he is not legally insane, but, he says, “the death sentence is meant only for the truly depraved, and West does not fit that category.” Slobogin also believes that West’s mental health has continued to deteriorate during his time on death row, and he may be competent to be executed only as a result of heavy antipsychotic medication. Courts in several states have barred the forcible medication of prisoners to make them competent for execution. But even where the prisoner has been medicated for other reasons, Slobogin says, such synthetic competency presents an ethical dilemma. “An American Psychiatric Association Task Force has stated that treating a condemned prisoner for the purpose of enabling an execution ‘violates the fundamental ethical norms of the mental health professions,’” he writes. “While there is no indication that the state’s doctors are medicating West solely to ensure his execution, or that their goal is anything other than alleviating suffering, the fact remains that their treatment may well be what is making execution possible.” He believes that a commutation from Gov. Lee is the best solution.

In a separate Tennessean op-ed, four great-great-granddaughters of former Tennessee Gov. Albert Houston Roberts have urged Gov. Lee to halt all executions, beginning with West’s. They compare the governor’s clemency power to the decision Governor Roberts made to ratify the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote—a choice that cost him political allies and re-election. “We know that stopping the killing of West will not be the one decision that will fix our prisons and schools, but it will show our state that you are willing to act on principle when you have the chance by taking the right step for this next few minutes,” the women write. Their op-ed concludes with a personal challenge for the governor: “Our great-great-grandfather’s legacy is a testament to his personal and political courage,” they write. “Will you be remembered for being merciful and just or for the number of men you killed?”

Religious advocates have also called on Lee—who stressed his Christian faith during his campaign for office—to stop executions, and Tennessee’s death-row prisoners have asked him to visit death row and pray with them. In a one-sentence letter to Lee, 32 death-row prisoners—including West—wrote: “We understand you are a man of faith and we would like to ask you to please come pray with us.” A group called March4Mercy, which includes prison volunteers and activists, held a two-day vigil outside the governor’s office as they delivered the letter. Evangelical author Shane Claiborne said, “Jesus said, ‘when I was in prison you came and visited me,’ and that is their request.”

West’s clemency petition also highlights his dedication to his Christian faith, which has led him to have a positive impact on other prisoners. He served on the board of Men of Valor, a prison ministry that helps prisoners rehabilitate themselves. Lee said he is considering West’s clemency request. “These decisions are very difficult and deserve a lot of deliberation. And that’s what we’re doing. I wrestle with this very much, because it’s a very difficult decision. But we’re in that process.”

Sources

Adam Tamburin, Lawyers say Stephen Michael West did­n’t com­mit killings that put him on death row, Nashville Tennessean, August 2, 2019; Christopher Slobogin, Why Stephen Michael West should not be exe­cut­ed, The Tennessean, August 9, 2019; AJ Abell, Tennessee death row inmates hop­ing Gov. Lee will come pray with them, Fox-17, Nashville, August 10, 2019; Lucy Roberts, Molly Roberts, Mary Rose Roberts and Francis Sophia Roberts, Governor should make prin­ci­pled deci­sion and stop Stephen West’s exe­cu­tion, The Tennessean, August 10, 2019; Sixth Circuit rul­ing in West v. Parker deny­ing West’s chal­lenge to Tennessee’s lethal injec­tion protocol.