Killing the Willing: “Volunteers,” Suicide and Competency

When my client Robert South decided to waive his appeals so that his death sentence could be carried out, I understood why he might make that choice. Robert had a brain tumor that could not be surgically removed. Though not fatal, the tumor disrupted his sleep/wake cycle and had other negative physical consequences, including severe headaches, for his daily existence. He also had chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), resulting from a profound history of childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Robert suffered from daily recurrent flashbacks of the abuse. He had been on death row for almost a decade, and his children were grown. In his own words, he was “tired,” and he no longer wanted to go on. Even though he almost certainly would have obtained a new sentencing trial, and a life sentence seemed clearly obtainable, I did not view his choice as irrational. But it was suicidal. As a consequence, my feelings about his waiver were mixed; perhaps respect for him as a person should have led me to defer to, rather than resist, his choice. Rightly or wrongly, I opposed his choice, arguing that he was not competent to waive his appeals. But he was deemed competent, and, truth be told, correctly so. Despite my legal opposition to his choice, Robert asked me to be his “witness” at his execution, and I held his hand while the state took his life by means of lethal injection.