On Wednesday, June 6, 2012, Republican Governor John Kasich granted a temporary stay of execution for Abdul Awkal. Throughout the post-conviction proceedings, there have been questions surrounding Awkal’s mental competency. The stay of execution will allow a court to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine Awkal’s mental competency. Because of one of the key witness’s availability, the trial was scheduled for after Awkal’s original execution date, on Wednesday morning. Awkal was previously given a death sentence for the 1992 murders of his ex-wife and brother-in-law.
In the past, Awkal has not enjoyed a clean bill of mental health. Before he ever reached the guilt phase of his trial, Awkal was hospitalized for his mental health and had to be given medication that made him competent to stand trial. While the jury found him culpable for the murders, even after the trial questions about his mental stability remained, three different courts found that Awkal is mentally incompetent in the past twenty years. His current defense psychologist reported that Awkal currently believes he is being executed because the CIA wants him dead.
If the court finds in the evidentiary hearing that Awkal is mentally incompetent, Supreme Court precedent seemingly prohibits his execution. In the 1986 case Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment in the United States Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment to execute a person who is mentally incompetent. Later, in Panetti v. Quarterman, the Supreme Court supplemented its ruling in Ford, holding that a person must fully understand the reason for his or her execution. Despite precedent, however, the Ohio Supreme Court refused to grant Awkal a stay of execution.
After learning of Ohio’s plans to carry out Awkal’s execution despite questions of his mental competency, ABA President William T. Robinson III knew the only chance to postpone the execution was a stay by the Governor. Mr. Robinson addressed a personal letter to the Governor, and he additionally authored an op-ed piece advocating for Ohio to postpone the execution until the evidentiary hearing could be held. The op-ed piece cited opinions from jurists dating back to 1680, contending that the execution of a mentally incompetent person is a “miserable spectacle.” Luckily, it seems the Governor may have taken some of Mr. Robinson’s thoughts into consideration.
Ohio currently has no record of executing any death row inmate who was thought to be mentally incompetent. According to a Gallup poll published in 2011, America’s support for the death penalty is the lowest it has been in nearly forty years. Reportedly, only 61% of Americans currently favor the death penalty, while 35% are against capital punishment. Regardless of where anyone falls on the political spectrum, however, it is clear from the Constitution and the Supreme Court that the Governor of Ohio has made the correct decision in granting a temporary stay of execution of Abdul Awkal. By granting the stay and allowing the evidentiary hearing to move forward, the Governor made the only decision that justice would allow.
Junior Editor, Criminal Law Brief