This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Elroy Chester’s is one of two executions scheduled for tonight. There is another scheduled in Florida, which you can read about here.
Update: Elroy Chester has been executed.
Elroy Chester was executed tonight by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas,
but a hearing scheduled for today could derail the state’s plan to carry out the sentence. Update: The Fifth Circuit has ruled against Chester and the motion to stay his execution has been denied. Barring a stay from a higher court, the execution proceeded as planned.
Chester was convicted of the 1998 killing of local firefighter Willie Ryman during a one-man crime spree in which he racked up more than two dozen crimes, including multiple killings. Chester confessed to killing Ryman when he was arrested for the crime, and pled guilty to capital murder. He was sentenced to death in September 1998.
While there is very little doubt about his guilt, the question in Chester’s case is whether he is mentally competent to be executed. His attorneys have argued that he is mentally retarded (I realize this is not the appropriate term for his condition, however it remains the standard term in matters of criminal liability) and thus ineligible for execution under the 2002 Supreme Court ruling deeming execution of the mentally impaired as “cruel and unusual punishment” and thus unconstitutional.
From Jordan Smith’s piece “Smart Enough to Die” for the Austin Chronicle:
Chester repeatedly scored below 70 on IQ tests – the generally accepted upper limit for mental impairment; spent almost his entire childhood in special education classes; never learned to read, to shop or cook, or to live on his own, or even to distinguish among colors, according to court testimony; and was placed in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Mentally Retarded Offenders Program during his previous stays in the pen. Nonetheless, the courts have repeatedly determined that Chester has not proven he is mentally retarded, and is thus eligible for execution.
At issue is the criteria by which Texas defines mental impairment, which I’ve covered before in my posting on last year’s execution of Marvin Wilson. Rather than the standards laid out in the 2002 Supreme Court case Atkins v. Virginia, Texas uses a set of criteria called the Briseño factors. From The Nation‘s Liliana Segura:
“Named after another Texas death row case, these seven non-clinical measures are meant to show whether a given defendant displays a “level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty.” As an example, the Briseño court cited the fictitious character of Lennie Small, the mentally impaired migrant worker from John Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men.
Up until now all Chester’s appeals have been denied, and while experts and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agree he is mentally disabled, the courts have ruled under Briseño that he is not disabled enough to be barred from execution. In 2012 the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the same way, denying another appeal that Chester was mentally disabled.
But now the judge that wrote that ruling came under fire. From Jordan Smith’s piece “Smart Enough to Die” for the Austin Chronicle:
That ruling was penned by the court’s then-Chief Judge Edith Jones about whom a serious complaint of misconduct was filed by a handful of civil rights groups, with the Fifth Circuit’s current Chief Judge Carl Stewart. The complaint alleges that Jones made a number of racist and biased comments during a lecture on the death penalty she gave at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law in February. In addition to claiming that blacks and Hispanics are more violent than are whites, and that claims of racism and innocence made by death row inmates are mere “red herrings,” Jones also opined that the Supreme Court decision that outlawed execution of the intellectually disabled does the disabled a disservice and represents a “slippery slope” in death penalty jurisprudence…
…During the lecture Jones allegedly singled out Chester’s case (among a handful of others) for derision, even though his execution at that time had not yet been carried out, and his case may yet have come back to the Fifth Circuit, and to her, for review….”She said that Chester claimed to be mentally retarded and had been slow in school but he still managed to go on a burglary spree,” reads the affidavit. “In the context of talking about this case and others involving claims of mental retardation, Judge Jones commented that she believes it may do a disservice to the mentally retarded to exempt them from death sentencing.”
In light of Judge Jones’s comments, Chester’s attorney, Susan Orlansky, filed a motion to stay the execution, arguing the injection should be delayed until either a new panel reviews Chester’s case or the complaint against Jones is resolved.
“The Court should not permit Mr. Chester to be executed amid troubling questions about the actual or apparent partiality of the judge who cast the deciding vote [denying his appeal] and [who] authored the opinion in his case,” she wrote.
Yesterday the Fifth Circuit court agreed and assigned a three judge panel to review the previous appeal, but declined to stay the execution, giving the judges just 24 hours to come to a decision.
The new panel denied the motion to stay the execution, writing that they “perceive no injustice, nor any incorrectness, in the affirmance of the district court’s order denying habeas relief, and we correspondingly decline to exercise our discretion to recall mandate.” (Read the court’s full opinion here.)
According to 12 News, media witnesses were called in to view the execution at 6:21 p.m. local time. Chester was pronounced dead at 7:04 p.m. He was the 499th execution in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated.
A reporter for the Associated Press wrote that in his final words, Chester again confessed to the crimes and asked the victims’ family not to have “hate in your heart for me”:
Elroy Chester, 44, said that he didn’t want relatives of his victims to have “hate in your heart for me.”
Chester said he confessed to killing firefighter Willie Ryman III because “you should know who killed your loved one.”
“Don’t hate me. I’m sorry for taking your loved one,” Chester said. “Elroy Chester wasn’t a bad man, I don’t care what anybody says. A lot of people say I didn’t commit those murders. I really did it.”
The next execution in Texas, which will be the 500th, is scheduled for June 26, when Kimberly McCarthy is slated for lethal injection.
Chief Judge: New Panel Will Be Assigned to Consider Death Row Appeal
Death Watch: Chester to Die June 12
Appeals Panel Rethinks Killer’s Case After Judge’s Comments
Smart Enough to Die
Execution Watch: Elroy Chester to Die June 12