Friday, July 8, 2011

On Mental Competency

Gary Haugen waived his further appeals, thus “volunteering for execution” by the State of Oregon. Gary has been in Oregon’s State Pen since he was about 19 years old and was sentenced to death with a co-defendant for the murder of inmate David Polin in 2007.

Now graying slightly and facing the prospects of spending his 50th birthday on Death Row next spring, having recently lost loved ones and family members, Gary has had his execution postponed by a State Supreme Court. The Court ordered a mental competency hearing and reinstatement of the legal advisors Gary had dismissed before Judge Guimond issued the execution order last month.

Gary Haugen is seeking execution. There are many people (they blog, too) who applaud the swift application of death as justice. As an abolitionist who would rather have a world in which people get a chance, where we work hard and do the little things we can to give people good chances, I don’t want to see Gary Haugen – or any inmate – executed.

At the same time, knowing Gary has made me acutely aware of the ways in which prison so often contributes to, rather than mitigates against, criminality. Death Row is toxic in other ways. Both strike me as the kind of place in which it is tough to be mentally competent. And it is hard to know how someone would be different if you’ve only even known them depressed or anti-depressed, dis-illusioned or delusional, living in a cage in one of the cloudiest, rainiest, and most hopeless cities in the U.S. What passes for mental competency on Death Row? I can’t help thinking of the pacified and passive men released from Nurse Ratchett’s ward in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Gary has given reasons for abandoning his appeals. Some are marked by a sense of grandeur, others are practical and purposive. From news articles and our correspondence, I think there are many reasons, including:

· A desire to call attention to the politics of the death penalty;

· A need to feel he’s done something meaningful;

· An effort to publicize the injustices and hypocrisies of the criminal justice system;

· A recognition of the suffering his existence causes to his victims’ loved ones;

· A sense of guilt and remorse;

· A fear of his own anger and hopelessness;

· A need to be seen as noble;

· An unwillingness to do the hard work of transformation;

· A difficult environment and fatalistic worldview.

So we await the results of the hearing and I cross out the words that seem obscene in my calendar: “Gary’s last weekend,” “Gary’s execution” and consider the re-writing. And then I think of the young woman whose husband is gone forever, who hears the same radio story I do, but differently.

Sister Helen Prejean reminds us of the importance of reaching out to victims, too. But I’m not sure how to do that – for it also seems obscene to ask the widow of my friend’s (alleged) murder victim to “friend” me on facebook. It occurs to me that our introduction may be on the occasion of Gary’s execution.

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