CLEVELAND, Ohio – A rare legal fight over an Ohio death sentence is playing out in a medical ward, far from the state’s execution chamber.
In a wheelchair, James Frazier uses rambling, incoherent speech to detail how he believes prison staffers are breaking his hearing aids and playing with the sign on his door, records show.
He struggles with daily life, from understanding the aides who care for him to deal with daily urinary and fecal accidents, according to the records. The filings show Frazier suffers from a severe case of vascular dementia, preventing him from realizing where he is at – the prison system’s medical center in Columbus.
Last month, attorneys filed a notice of insanity in Lucas County Common Pleas Court to stop Frazier’s execution, scheduled for October. They said Frazier, 79, the oldest inmate on Ohio’s death row, cannot understand why the state wants to execute him, and he has no recollection of his trial for killing Mary Stevenson in Toledo in 2004.
The filings mark one of the first times in Ohio that lawyers have used the issue of dementia in pleadings to stop an execution. Legal experts have said they expect such cases to increase as inmates on death row grow older.
“This is very unusual,” said Rick Halperin, the director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It will become a problem, though, as death row is aging. You don’t see many states that are actively trying to executive people in their 70s.”
In Frazier’s case, his attorneys stressed that he is too ill to be executed, and they want a judge to drop the death penalty and allow him to remain behind bars under a life term.
“Mr. Frazier’s concept of reality is so impaired that he cannot grasp the execution’s meaning and purpose or the link between the crime and his punishment – not now and not ever,” one of his attorneys, Sharon Hicks, wrote in documents.
An Atlanta psychiatrist who examined Frazier over two years and studied medical reports in his case was more blunt.
“Mr. Frazier is clearly demented and lacks a rational understanding of his death sentence and why the state wants to execute him,” said Bhushan Agharkar, the psychiatrist, in a report on Frazier’s condition.
Jennifer Donovan, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor, said her office would request an evaluation of Frazier. She declined to comment further. Attempts to reach Stevenson’s family and those who knew her were unsuccessful.
Ohio has not executed an inmate since July 2018, when it executed Robert Van Hook of Cincinnati. The state has postponed executions until it can find new drugs needed for lethal injection. Attorneys, however, continue to challenge the state’s execution method. There are 138 men and one woman on Ohio’s death row.
Frazier was sentenced to death row in 2005 after a jury convicted him in Lucas County in the slaying of Stevenson, 49, who had suffered cerebral palsy.
Frazier lived in Stevenson’s apartment building in Toledo, and prosecutors said he strangled Stevenson and slashed her throat during a robbery in which he sought cash to buy cocaine.
He spent time in the Chillicothe Correctional Institution, the home of Ohio’s death row. On Nov. 14, 2017, authorities found Frazier in his cell covered in urine and feces following what doctors called multiple mini-strokes, according to the filings by Frazier’s attorneys.
He was later transferred to the prison system’s Franklin Medical Center in Columbus. In filings, Frazier’s attorneys said he has struggled since then. He is frail and cannot care for himself.
Agharkar, the psychiatrist, said Frazier believes it is 1990 and that he is still waiting to stand trial in Stevenson’s death. Agharkar’s report said Frazier looked forward to clearing his name before a judge and jury.
The document said Frazier asked Agharkar during the September interview why there was a plastic glass barrier between them. The psychiatrist said it stemmed from the coronavirus. Frazier acknowledged that he had heard of the pandemic.
Moments later, Frazier asked the same question again about the barrier. Agharkar said it was clear that Frazier was not faking his illness.
“Mr. Frazier is unable to rationally assist his counsel with his case because his deteriorating brain disease impairs his memory, ability to weigh and deliberate options and maintain a coherent conversation when discussing his case,” Agharkar’s report said.
“He is easily confused and appears paranoid, the result of his dementia.”
His case follows U.S. Supreme Court cases involving two death-row inmates who also had dementia. The outcomes were strikingly different.
Vernon Madison, 69, died in an Alabama prison of natural causes in February, nearly a year after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor that dementia could prevent an inmate from execution.
In 1985, Madison shot and killed Julius Schulte, a Mobile, Alabama, police officer during a domestic dispute. Madison was convicted and sentenced to death.
The Supreme Court, however, sent the case back to Alabama for further consideration. Madison died before a decision on his competency.
Wesley Purkey, 68, was executed in July at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, for killing 16-year-old Jennifer Long. Published reports said he also struggled with dementia.
Unlike in Madison’s case, the Supreme Court permitted the execution to occur without a hearing to determine Purkey’s mental state.
“In this case, it appeared that the Supreme Court had already made up its mind to let the execution happen,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. “Why the difference in the cases? A lot of people are wondering that.”
In Frazier’s case, it is unclear when Joseph McNamara, the Lucas County judge assigned the case, will schedule a hearing on the notice of insanity that Frazier’s attorneys filed.
Any decision is expected to face an appeal.