On California’s Death Row, Too Insane to Execute

Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2016

On an August afternoon in 1984, Linda Marie Baltazar Pasnick, a 27-year-old aspiring model, was running errands before a fashion competition when she pulled into the drive-through at a Der Wienerschnitzel.

As she waited in line, a panhandler pushed his face into her window and she shooed him away. Ronnie McPeters came back with a gun, leaned in to her open window and fired three times. Then as her car rolled forward and she cried for help, he shot twice more.

McPeters spent the next nine months in the “rubber room” of the Fresno jail. He set fires and assaulted jailers. He told a psychiatrist he was filming a commercial. His bizarre behavior escalated at San Quentin State Prison’s death row, where in months he fell into a stupor, smearing feces on the walls, the floor and himself.

Now, McPeters is at the center of a legal battle with profound implications for California’s death row.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris’ office has asked the California Supreme Court to remove McPeters from death row, arguing he will always be too gravely disabled to execute. State prosecutors believe McPeters’ sentence should be be converted to life, to be spent in other prisons or state medical facilities.

If the state’s highest court agrees, Harris’ legal theory of “permanent incompetence” would make California the first to address a growing problem of aging and gravely mentally ill inmates awaiting ever-delayed execution.

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Federal judges have declared nine men on death row, including McPeters, so incompetent they cannot assist their attorneys. Lawyers for at least 10 more death row inmates have attempted to raise execution sanity claims. Judges, however, have refused to hear those cases, saying it was premature to decide the issue until execution was imminent.

On his worst days on death row, McPeters hoards his feces, rolled for safekeeping, or soaks himself in urine, according to prison psychiatric reports contained in court records. He speaks to a wife and children who did not exist. He says he’s tormented by the inner voices of the relatives of Linda Pasnick.

His care has been inconsistent. At times he was involuntarily medicated for schizophrenia. At another, his psychotropic drugs were stopped. One psychiatrist sent him to be hospitalized and the next had him strapped down five days for observation, then declared him a faker and treated him with vitamin B-12, records show.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill ruled that McPeters was incompetent to pursue the appeal of his 1986 conviction. Moreover, the judge said, McPeters was likely too insane to execute and the state was wasting money keeping him on death row.

“The public is getting financially raped in this case and this is outrageous,” O’Neill shot back at an April 2013 status conference according to a transcript. “We don’t have one scintilla of evidence . . . that he is anything but incompetent.”

Transcripts from court proceedings show then-Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown’s office rebuffed the Oakland judge’s order to craft a settlement aimed at removing McPeters from death row. When Harris took over that office, she continued Brown’s tack.

Then last year, Harris’ office changed course. She joined McPeters’ appeal lawyers in asking the Supreme Court to declare he could never be killed because of his mental condition.

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The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 ruled that execution of the insane was cruel, but left the test for sanity to the states.

Under California law, the competency of an inmate is not reviewed until weeks before an execution. If the warden then questions an inmate’s sanity, a sanity trial is conducted. That has happened only twice in California, the last time in 1998, when the state sought to execute Horace Kelly for rape and murder.

Kelly lived in a trash- and feces-filled cell so foul guards put on masks if they had to enter to hose it down. Five of six experts concluded Kelly was incompetent. But a Marin County jury found Kelly “aware” of his sentence and the reason for it and voted for execution, 9-3. A stay by a federal judge stalled the execution, and Kelly’s lawyers have since raised new grounds for appeal.

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