Benjamin Cole: Oklahoma set to execute inmate who lawyers say has paranoid schizophrenia


Oklahoma is set to continue its streak of more than two dozen executions on Thursday as it is set to put to death Benjamin Cole, a 57-year-old man convicted of murdering his 9-month-old daughter.

But in the two decades since the crime, the death row inmate’s declining mental state — amplified by his childhood exposure to drugs and alcohol, substance abuse issues, and physical and sexual abuse — s It’s so deteriorated that Cole isn’t fit for execution. , pleaded his lawyers in a clemency appeal.

Their claims bring to the fore a long-standing issue in the debate over capital punishment: how it should apply to those who suffer from mental illness. The issue is key in a number of inmate cases, their attorneys say, as Oklahoma officials plan through 2024 to carry out 25 executions, a spree that critics also condemned amid the story botched lethal injections by the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Cole’s request for a stay of execution after the state parole board last month declined to recommend clemency. Meanwhile, the inmate’s attorneys have asked a state appeals court to compel the inmate’s manager to refer his case to the district attorney for review to initiate a jurisdictional hearing.

The facts of Cole’s case compel the state to spare his life, his attorneys have told parole board members in recent months, though the arguments have failed. They pointed to “changing standards of decency”, including public polls that show disapproval of executions of the mentally ill.

“At this time,” the attorneys wrote, “Oklahoma has the opportunity to show courage, follow these standards, and be on the right side of history by enjoining the execution of Benjamin Cole, a person seriously mentally ill and physically infirm.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1986 decision ruled the execution of the seriously mentally ill unconstitutional, with Justice Thurgood Marshall writing, “It is no less odious today than it was been for centuries demanding the life of a mentally ill person as penance. prevents him from understanding the reasons for the sanction or its implications. And in Oklahoma, state law makes it illegal to execute someone found insane.

Cole, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffers from a brain injury associated with Parkinson’s disease, lives in a largely ‘catatonic’ state, speaking to virtually no one, including his own lawyers, according to his clemency petition. . After years of near-total isolation in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, he uses a wheelchair and exists in what a clinical psychologist described in the clemency application as his own “mental universe,” not understanding the legal proceedings surrounding his impending execution.

“Benjamin Cole is incapacitated by his mental illness to the point of being essentially nonfunctional,” his attorney, Tom Hird, said in a statement after an Oklahoma judge ruled this month that Cole was fit to be executed.

“His own lawyers have not been able to have any meaningful interaction with him for years, and staff who interact with him every day in the prison confirm that he cannot communicate or take care of his most basic hygiene. He just doesn’t have a rational understanding of why Oklahoma is looking to execute him.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor welcomed the parole board’s vote in September in a statement, noting that Cole’s conviction and sentence had been upheld on appeal and dismissing questions about the disease Cole’s mind.

“Although his lawyers claim that Cole is mentally ill to the point of catatonia, the fact is that Cole cooperated fully with a mental evaluation in July of this year,” the attorney general said September 27. “The evaluator, who was not hired by Cole or the state, determined that Cole was competent to be executed and that ‘Mr. Cole presently exhibits no significant and manifest signs of mental illness, intellectual disability and / or neurocognitive impairment.

“I am grateful that the board has denied Cole’s executive clemency request. Our thoughts and prayers are with the other members of the family of the child killed.

Cole was convicted of the brutal murder of his daughter, Brianna Victoria Cole, on December 20, 2002, by the Attorney General’s Office when her screams interrupted him while playing a video game.

Cole grabbed his daughter’s ankles while she was on her stomach and forced them up onto her head, breaking her spine and causing her to bleed to death, according to a probable cause affidavit. Cole then returned to his video game when his daughter died, O’Connor said.

Cole admitted in a taped confession to causing his daughter’s fatal injuries, his plea for clemency stated, telling police he would “regret his actions for the rest of his life”.

Before his trial, prosecutors offered him a plea deal that would have resulted in a life sentence without parole. But Cole, his mental state already deteriorating, refused to accept it – a “complete act of irrationality against self-interest”, his petition said.

Cole wanted the case to go to trial because, he told his attorneys, it was ‘God’s will’ and ‘his story…would transform Rogers County, and it would allow God to touch hearts. and allow Benjamin to go free. man.”

Cole had not yet been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but his lawyers twice requested competency assessments, arguing that his religious delusions made him irrational and therefore did not understand the legal process. Yet he was deemed fit to stand trial.

Lawyers for Cole today claim his trial attorneys, as well as the judge and bailiff, acknowledged the prevalence of his mental illness as the man sat at trial ‘literally not moving a muscle for hours with an open Bible in front of him on the table,” according to the petition. Cole did not testify and was sentenced to death.

Cole’s mental health issues date back to his early childhood, growing up in a garbage dump surrounded by “rampant” drug and alcohol abuse, his petition says. Encouraged by the adults in his life, Cole started drinking at an early age, he said, and one of Cole’s brothers testified that they allegedly had gas huffing when Cole was 10 years old. Cole also endured years of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, according to the petition.

Cole graduated from high school, but around this time he began to show “all the marks of someone beginning to struggle with serious mental illness,” according to the clemency petition, noting that 18 is the typical age at which adults begin serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. emerge first.

Cole became “isolated and withdrawn,” and a half-sister said he was depressed and didn’t have many friends, according to the petition. He spent long periods unemployed, and although he joined the Air Force in 1986, he struggled with drug addiction, exhibited “impulse control problems,” and was discharged the year next.

It was around this time that Cole’s first wife accused him of abusing their son, and Cole was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated child abuse., says the petition. That marriage ended, as did Cole’s second, and when he met Brianna’s mother in 1998, he was either living under a bridge or in a tent in Claremore, Oklahoma.

When their daughter was born, according to the petition, Cole couldn’t hold down a job and was “drinking heavily.”

Cole’s condition has worsened in the years since his trial, years in which teams of post-conviction lawyers struggled to meaningfully communicate with him as a small parade of psychologists and psychiatrists were assessing his declining mental state, the petition states.

One diagnosed Cole with paranoid schizophrenia in 2008, finding that his mental state had deteriorated after going untreated for almost 20 years.

This doctor also said that Cole was “convinced” that any discussion of his case would “undermine his faith in Jesus and undermine his current ‘saved’ status,” the petition states. These beliefs underscore what his lawyers describe as a “relentless reluctance” that interferes with their ability to work with him on his case.

His clemency petition details visits from lawyers and doctors who found Cole dirty and “neglected” in complete darkness inside his cell, which he would almost never leave. Prison officers and his case manager told Cole’s lawyers that he kept the lights off most of the time and did not care about his personal hygiene, according to the petition.

In 2015, Cole sent his mother some of his hair and a tooth, and in 2019 he gave one of his lawyers a package with two more of his teeth and a note that the lawyers understood to be a request to send teeth to his mother – both the cases, according to his request for clemency, illustrate his abrupt decline.

Additionally, according to his petition, a doctor who reviewed an MRI performed on Cole this year found a lesion on his brain that “is highly consistent” with Parkinsonism.

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