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Court denies mental incompetency plea in Oklahoma execution case

Update (Oct. 20, 11:15 a.m.): This article has been updated to reflect additional action by the court on Thursday morning.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to block the execution of an Oklahoma man with schizophrenia, rejecting a claim from his legal team that he does not understand the reason for his execution. Benjamin Cole is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Thursday.

The court turned down Cole’s last-minute appeal in a brief order with no recorded dissents. Justice Neil Gorsuch did not participate in the decision. Gorsuch likely recused himself because he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit when Cole sought relief from that court during earlier litigation.

Cole was convicted and sentenced in 2004 for killing his nine-month-old daughter. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. According to his defense team, Cole has been unable to interact with his lawyers for years, and prison staff have confirmed he cannot communicate or take care of his basic hygiene. They argued that his execution would violate Supreme Court precedent that bars states from executing anyone who does not have a rational understanding of why he is being killed.

Psychologist reports from 2016, 2018, and 2022 detail Cole’s severe mental illness, and a 2022 report from a neuroradiologist shows an abnormal MRI and brain lesion. But, in July, after Oklahoma scheduled 25 executions, including Cole’s, a court-appointed psychologist at the Oklahoma Forensic Center evaluated Cole and found him “competent for execution.”

Cole’s legal team requested a trial on Cole’s competency, but an Oklahoma judge ruled that Cole had not met the “substantial threshold showing of insanity” required to go to trial. The judge found the expert reports conflicting and was persuaded by the prosecution’s expert.

Cole came to the Supreme Court last week, asking the justices to halt his execution and review the merits of his challenge to the state’s competency procedures. Oklahoma urged the court not to take Cole’s case, arguing that it was “an inappropriate vehicle for examination of Oklahoma’s competency procedures.” The state emphasized that a neutral, court-appointed psychologist had found him competent to be executed.

On Wednesday, Cole sought additional last-minute relief from the Supreme Court, raising the same mental competency issue. The court denied that relief in a brief order on Thursday morning. 

Recommended Citation: Ellena Erskine, Court denies mental incompetency plea in Oklahoma execution case, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 19, 2022, 9:45 PM),