Letter from Laurie Flynn, Executive Director, to Walter S. Ray, Chairman, Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole

Aug 21 2000

August 21, 2000

 

Mr. Walter S. Ray, Chairman
State Board of Pardons and Parole
Floyd Veterans Memorial Building
Balcony Level, East Tower
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, S.E.
Atlanta, Georgia 30334

 

Dear Chairman Ray:

On behalf of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), I respectfully ask you to spare the life of Alexander Williams, a man with a longstanding severe mental illness, by commuting his death sentence to a more humane alternative sentence. NAMI, with more than 210,000 members, is comprised of persons with severe mental illnesses and their families.

Although there are several factors that mitigate against execution in this case, this letter focuses exclusively on mental illness. The extensive medical record that exists in Mr. Williams' case provides clear and uncontroverted evidence that he suffered from a severe mental illness before the crime, and that it continues to this day.

Mr. Williams' Mental Illness:

Psychiatrists and psychologists employed by the State of Georgia itself who have treated Mr. Williams agree that Mr. Williams has been frequently psychotic and suffers from either schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.

Schizophrenia is a brain disorder that interferes with a person's ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. When not properly treated, people suffering from schizophrenia frequently experience severe, terrifying delusions, hallucinations, and feelings of extreme paranoia. The symptoms of schizophrenia can cause those who experience them to literally become divorced from reality.

Individuals diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder experience the delusions and hallucinations characteristic of schizophrenia as well as the symptoms of a mood disorder, such as bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness) or major depression. Research has clearly linked both schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder to changes in brain chemistry and structure.

As neurobiological disorders of the brain, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder are more closely analogous to Alzheimer's Disease, dementia, and other types of severe neurological disorders that devastate the ability to think and to make sound decisions than they are to most mental health issues and problems experienced by incarcerated inmates.

Evidence of Severe Mental Illness before the Crime:

Although no medical records are available for the period immediately preceding Mr. Williams' arrest, information from this time period strongly suggests that he was suffering from the symptoms of severe mental illness at this time. In March 1985, less than a year before his arrest in this case, Mr. Williams was hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation. Shortly thereafter, he was held in jail for five months on a charge of theft, where he was reported to have engaged in strange behaviors and expressed delusional beliefs. While in custody awaiting trial in this case, his behaviors were so bizarre that even the prosecution raised questions about his mental status.

Despite this compelling evidence of mental illness, his trial attorney, O.L. Collins, failed to request a psychiatric evaluation, nor did he ever raise mental illness as a mitigating factor to the jury. Later, Mr. Collins was removed from the list of lawyers eligible to represent indigent criminal defendants in Richmond County because of his history of inadequate representation. The American system of criminal jurisprudence is based on the premise that defendants facing the death penalty should be provided the best possible counsel and opportunity to defend against the imposition of this most extreme penalty. Instead, Mr. Williams was deprived of that opportunity. His history of mental illness was never appropriately considered.

Evidence of Severe Mental Illness during Incarceration:

A review of the medical records of Alexander Williams since his arrest and incarceration reveals a seriously ill individual who has frequently experienced extreme psychotic episodes throughout his incarceration. During his incarceration, Mr. Williams has:

  • Attempted suicide on several occasions;
  • Been observed crawling on his belly like a snake;
  • Attacked his attorney, explaining afterwards that his attack was precipitated by the "little red man in the attorney's eye;"
  • Refused food and stopped taking care of his personal hygiene for extended periods of time;
  • Been observed repeatedly talking to himself, laughing, and responding to imaginary voices;
  • Upset other inmates who were disturbed by his bizarre, incomprehensible behaviors;

Indeed, Mr. Williams has been so consistently psychotic during his incarceration that the state has frequently chosen to involuntarily medicate him. Pursuant to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, involuntary medication orders are very difficult to obtain for inmates with mental illnesses. Washington v. Harper, 494 U.S. 178 (1990). To administer involuntary medications, states must prove that an inmate is a danger to self or others and that the treatment is in the inmate's best interests. Id at 227. Since 1996, Mr. Williams has been subject to standing involuntary medication orders. In obtaining these orders, the State itself, as a matter of law, has proven that he is severely mentally ill.

The record further demonstrates that Mr. Williams remains psychotic even when he takes anti-psychotic medications. Although his most severe symptoms may diminish, he continues to behave in a bizarre and delusional fashion during periods of medication compliance.

Executing Mr. Williams Would Be an Affront to Justice and Decency:

The record provides a clear picture of a man who was severely psychotic due to schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder at the time of his crime, and who has remained consistently psychotic during the ensuring 14 years. The execution of an individual as profoundly ill as Mr. Williams runs contrary to the spirit of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, to international law, and to all standards of decency.

NAMI does not excuse the underlying crimes in this case, nor overlook the suffering of the family of Aleta Carol Bunch, the victim. However, the execution of Alexander Williams will serve no purpose other than to compound the original tragedy. I implore the parole board to take the just and proper course by commuting the death sentence of Alexander Williams. Instead, Mr. Williams should be incarcerated in a secure facility where he can receive the treatment for his severe mental illness that he needs, while also protecting the public welfare.

Thank you for your consideration of our urgent request.

Sincerely,

Laurie M. Flynn
Executive Director