Washington Post


IF THE STATE of Georgia has its way, Alexander Williams IV will soon be dead. Mr. Williams raped and murdered a teenage girl in 1986; his guilt is not seriously in doubt. Yet his execution would be barbarous. The reason is not just that Mr. Williams was 17 at the time of his crime, though the juvenile death penalty is a blight that should be ended. Mr. Williams also, in the words of prison doctors, suffers from “chronic paranoid schizophrenia,” and prison officials are authorized to forcibly medicate him with anti-psychotic drugs. The Supreme Court has forbidden the execution of those so mentally ill that they do not understand what is happening to them or why. So the Williams case raises the question of whether Georgia may treat an inmate to restore competency, in order then to kill him. To pose such a stomach-turning question is to answer it.

Mr. Williams did not plead insanity at his trial. But his symptoms, it seems, have worsened since — not surprising given that schizophrenia often develops in early adulthood. His lawyers, citing prison records from throughout his years on death row, contend that he believes actress Sigourney Weaver is God and that he “sees little red men in people’s eyes, and green frogs that do not exist. He sleeps on the floor so as to be closer to the frogs… . He says that rats have been ‘beamed into’ his cell.” The state does not concede the extent of Mr. Williams’s impairment, contending instead that the matter has never been raised in the appropriate forum. But it apparently does take his delusions seriously enough to forcibly inject him with drugs if he does not take them willingly.

At the very least, a court should consider the evidence of Mr. Williams’s current mental state and determine whether his execution would offend the Constitution. No court has yet done so. Ultimately, the Supreme Court should make clear that states may not treat mental illness in order to pave the road to the death chamber. The court faced this question once before, and it punted. It should not do so again. Nor should the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles turn away. If there is any role for executive clemency, surely sparing the mentally ill from the full wrath of criminal law is among the more compelling. The board yesterday temporarily stayed the execution, which would otherwise have taken place today, to consider the matter further. Here’s hoping someone has the decency to stop it altogether.