Death Row inmate questions his mental status prior to execution

February 7, 2012 in News

Edwin Hart Turner, 39, is scheduled to die Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. by lethal injection. Unless it is halted, the execution will take place at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

JACKSON – (AP) One week prior to his execution, attorneys for Death Row inmate Edwin Hart Turner, filed a complaint to halt the execution claiming Turner is mentally ill and doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of his actions.

His lawyers also told a federal judge Friday that a corrections policy prevented Turner from getting tests that could prove he’s mentally ill and ineligible for execution.

Turner, 39, is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, Feb 8 at 6 p.m. for killing two men during a robbery spree in 1995 in Carroll County. His attorneys are trying to block the execution in U.S. District Court in Jackson. They’ve also filed different arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Turner was in the courtroom Friday, wearing one of the red jumpsuits issued to death row inmates, a raincoat and shackles. He’s a short, balding man and his face is severely disfigured from a self-inflicted gunshot wound when he was 18.

His attorneys have said in court filings that Turner put a rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger in one of several suicide attempts that, they say, underscore his mental illness.

James Craig, a lawyer with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, argued in the federal court in Jackson that a Mississippi Department of Corrections policy that dates to the 1990s has prevented Turner from getting independent tests and exams that could prove he’s mentally ill.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing a mentally ill person amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is forbidden under the Constitution.

Craig asked U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves to block the execution while deciding if the policy has violated prisoners’ rights to have access to courts and other materials that can help them develop evidence.

“The case cannot proceed on behalf of Mr. Turner if he is not alive,” Craig said.

Jason Davis, a lawyer for the Mississippi attorney general’s office, said Turner should have sought the tests long ago and has waited too long to challenge the policy. Courts have already rejected other arguments based on Turner’s claim of mental illness, he said.

Davis said the policy is in place for security reasons. Medical and mental health experts often bring materials to visits and need contact with the inmates that could create a dangerous situation. Currently, only lawyers and paralegals have such access to the inmates, and the only material they are allowed to bring is a pencil and paper.

Reeves noted that the execution is only days away and said he would rule later, but in a timely manner.

A spokeswoman for MDOC said Friday the agency wouldn’t comment on matters before the court.

Craig filed a separate petition Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court that asks for the execution to be halted. That said “Turner suffers from an inherited and chronic mental illness” that impaired his ability to understand right and wrong and the consequences of his actions.

Court records say Turner killed two Carroll County men in 1995 while robbing gas stations with his friend, Paul Murrell Stewart. Turner shot the men at close range with a 6mm rifle. The robberies were said to have netted about $400.

Stewart testified against Turner and was sentenced to life.

Craig argued in the motion before the Supreme Court that Turner inherited a mental illness like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia from his father. The suicide attempt when he was a teenager left the bottom half of his face extremely disfigured.

“Hart was infamous in his small Mississippi town because he wore a towel wrapped around his face at all times to hide the disfigurement. Not only was he wearing a towel at the time of the killings, he was wearing a jacket that said ‘Turner’ on it,” Craig said in the filing. “At trial numerous witnesses testified that they knew of Hart and his towel before the incident, and each easily identified Hart – who was sitting at the defense table shrouded in his signature towel.”

Turner had spent three months in a mental institution and was released six weeks before the killings, the filing said. The document also said Turner’s grandmother and great-grandmother on his father’s side were both schizophrenic and spent years in and out of the state mental hospital.

Turner’s father was killed in 1985 when he shot a gun into a shed full of dynamite, causing an explosion, in what relatives described as a “successful, albeit passive, suicide attempt,” according to the document.

In arguing that Turner was irrational, Craig said there was no need for him to rob the stores because he was financially secure due to his father’s death.

“Mississippi is but one of 10 states who permit the execution of one who, like Turner, suffers from a serious mental illness at the time of his conduct at the time of the offense,” according to the legal filing.

Court records said Turner and Stewart were drinking beer and smoking marijuana on the night of Dec. 12, 1995, when they decided to rob a store. They picked Mims Turkey Village Truck Stop on U.S. Highway 82 in Carroll County, where 37-year-old Eddie Brooks was working a late shift.

Authorities said Turner shot Brooks in the chest and became enraged when he couldn’t get the cash register open. Turner “placed the barrel of his gun inches from Eddie Brooks’ head and pulled the trigger,” according to court records.

The two men drove about four miles down the road to Mims One Stop, where Everett Curry, a 38-year-old prison guard, was pumping gas. Stewart went inside to rob the store, while Turner forced Curry to the ground at gunpoint.

“As Curry was pleading for his life, Turner shot him in the head,” the court records said.

Turner’s trial was held in Forrest County, where he was convicted of two counts of capital murder and sentenced to death on each count.

The last Death Row inmate to claim that he was mentally ill prior to his execution was Robert Simon. Simon’s attorneys were issued a stay of execution just four hours before Simon was to die by lethal injection on May 24, 2011.

Simon fell in prison in January 2011 and claimed he became mentally impaired and did not understand why he was being put to death.

Simon remains on Death Row and his case is still pending.