Justice: Capital Punishment and the Delk Case
May 1, 2002
By Steven W. Hawkins
Earlier this year the state of Texas executed an FBI agent,
a state district judge, the president of Kenya and a war hero
who commanded a nuclear-powered submarine during the Civil
War. More aptly put, Texas executed a seriously mentally ill
inmate named Monty Allen Delk who, at varying times, believed
he was all of these things.
Delk was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder
of Gene "Bubba" Allen of Anderson County in East Texas. Although
the state of Texas maintained that Delk was "malingering,"
i.e., pretending to be mentally ill to stave off execution,
the prison system's former chief mental health officer stated
that Delk suffered from a severe mental illness, one that
had become progressive in nature since it was first noticed
in 1989 - years after Delk was tried and convicted.
A close examination of the Delk case reveals a significant
flaw in the capital punishment system. The U.S. Supreme Court
has ruled that executing severely mentally ill inmates violates
the U.S. Constitution. The court also has held that a death
row inmate must be mentally competent in order to drop his
appeals. But the court has not directly addressed the issue
of whether a death row inmate must be mentally competent in
order to pursue his state and federal habeas appeals. In fact,
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and the 5th Circuit Court
of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over death penalty cases
in Texas, have ruled that prisoner competence during state
and federal habeas proceedings is not constitutionally required.
The question is fundamental to due process. Habeas is the
first, last and often only avenue of appeal for death row
inmates whose sentences have been upheld on direct appeal
by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. But because Delk was
unable to assist his attorney through his habeas appeals,
he could not answer simple questions that were key to his
case - questions such as: did he commit the crime? Did he
think his trial was fair? Did he think his trial lawyers adequately
represented him? Were there circumstances about the crime
or about his personal history that mitigated against a death
The fact that Delk's execution was allowed to proceed represents
a three-pronged failure on the part of Texas' death penalty
system. The first failure must be attributed to the courts,
which failed to order a psychiatric evaluation of Delk, despite
repeated requests by Delk's very able attorney, John Wright
The second failure lies with Texas' executive clemency system.
Because of his mental illness, Delk's sentence should have
been commuted to life in prison. Yet the Board of Pardons
and Paroles as well as Texas Gov. Rick Perry did nothing.
(It is important to note that four days before Delk's execution,
the Georgia Parole Board, acting in a similar case, commuted
death row inmate Alexander Williams sentence to life in prison
after pleas from human rights activists.)
The third failure rests with the Texas media. While Williams'
case attracted comprehensive media coverage in Georgia and
beyond, newspapers in Texas largely failed to investigate
Delk's case. (Two exceptions were the Tyler Morning Telegraph
and the Sunday magazine section of the Dallas Morning News.)
Government - including the criminal justice system - works
best under the glare of public scrutiny. Absent such scrutiny,
Ultimately, the Supreme Court will have to directly confront
the issue of whether a death-sentenced prisoner need be mentally
competent during his habeas appeals. Until that happens, the
risk of other severely mentally ill inmates following through
the cracks of our judiciary is unacceptably high.
Hawkins is executive director of the National Coalition
to Abolish the Death Penalty. Founded in 1976, NCADP is the
only fully-staffed national organization devoted specifically
to abolishing the death penalty and is comprised of more than
100 local, state, national and international affiliates.