On January 23, 2024, attorneys for Utah death-sentenced prisoner Ralph Menzies, who has been diagnosed with a major neurocognitive disorder known as vascular dementia, filed a petition in state court alleging he is incompetent to be executed. Mr. Menzies, who uses a walker to navigate the prisons, has been on Utah’s death row for nearly 36 years. On January 17, 2024, Utah’s attorney general’s office filed a motion with courts to set an execution date for him and indicated it will use the firing squad. 

Mr. Menzies’ petition points to a recent MRI scan showing “significant brain atrophy,” an indication of worsening dementia, “chronic micro-hemorrhages, and damaged brain tissue, which have resulted in substantial deficits in Mr. Menzies’s learning, memory, information processing, abstract reasoning, and problem solving.” Mr. Menzies’ lawyers note that he first began to experience chronic dizziness in 2018, which resulted in a severe fall from a ladder requiring several days of hospitalization. Since that first fall, Mr. Menzies’ dizziness has become increasingly common and falls have become more frequent, eventually leading prison staff to perform an MRI in June 2023. 

“[T]he associated cognitive deficits [of vascular dementia] have rendered him incapable of forming a rational understanding of the reasons the State seeks to execute him,” concluded Lynette M. Abrams-Silva, PhD, ABPP, a board-certified neuropsychologist who evaluated Mr. Menzies. In her January 19 report, she explains that “[w]hile Mr. Menzies has expressed awareness that he has been sentenced to be executed, ‘awareness’ is necessary but not sufficient to constitute a rational understanding of the reason for imposition of a death sentence.”  

One of Mr. Menzies lawyers, Eric Zuckerman stated in a press release that “Given Ralph’s cognitive deterioration, executing him can serve no legitimate purpose of punishment and thus would violate the Constitution.” The petition argues that Mr. Menzies’ execution would violate constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment at the state and federal level, as well as Utah Code § 77-19-205, which prohibits the execution of an incompetent prisoner. 

The United States Supreme Court held in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that executing someone who does not understand the reasons he is being executed would violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Later, in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007), the Court elaborated that a prisoner must have a rationale understanding of the reasons for his execution, though it did not establish a detailed rule for determining competency. In 2018, the Court ruled in Madison v. Alabama that the precedent established in Panetti also applies to those with dementia, not just severe mental illness. 

Utah last executed Ronnie Lee Gardner in 2010 via firing squad; since 1976, there have been three firing squad executions in United States, all in Utah. 


Jessica Miller, Utah asked for a death war­rant, but attor­neys for con­vict­ed killer say he has demen­tia and shouldn’t be exe­cut­ed, The Salt Lake Tribune, January 232024 

You can read the com­pe­ten­cy peti­tion, here.