“James Johnson is innocent. For them to keep holding him is a crime in itself.”

May 8, 2007

News Update 5.08.07

North Carolina

Kenneth Meeks has said repeatedly that he alone killed Brittany Willis, and that he only claimed James Johnson was his accomplice because he was angry at Johnson for turning him in. So why is James Johnson still in jail three years later? Click here to see a letter Meeks wrote to a local paper.


In Tennessee, the State House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed a bill that would establish a commission to conduct a thorough examination of the state’s death penalty system. However, the Sixth Circuit has lifted Philip Workman’s stay of execution. Workman will be killed in two days unless the Supreme Court or Governor Bredesen intervenes.

American Medical News, a publication of the American Medical Association, on physician participation in executions. (Unfortunately, the full text is available only to AMA members.)

The Los Angeles Times on how the Supreme Court’s vague standard for mental retardation is applied differently in different states. Did SCOTUS only create more disparity in capital sentencing?

Time Magazine asks whether making child molestation a capital crime will only encourage molesters to kill their victims (or victims to keep silent or juries not to convict).

Oprah, Can You Hear Me?

May 8, 2007

The strange case of Guy Tobias LeGrande goes on. In 1996, Guy LeGrande was sentenced to death in Stanly County for the murder of Ellen Munford. (Incidentally, the man who hired LeGrande and provided him with the murder weapon – Munford’s husband – was convicted only of second-degree murder.) LeGrande fired his court-appointed attorneys and was allowed to represent himself over their protestations that he was severely mentally ill.

The jury never heard evidence that LeGrande believed he was receiving signals from Dan Rather and Oprah Winfrey through the television. They did not know that he had long suffered from delusions and extreme mood swings. LeGrande represented himself while wearing a Superman t-shirt, and his ranting arguments drew comments even from the judge who’d found him competent. LeGrande challenged the jury to sentence him to death, telling them, “All you so-called good folks can kiss my natural black ass in the showroom window of Heilig-Myers” and “Pull the damn switch and shake that groove thing.” They obliged after 45 minutes of deliberation. After his conviction, LeGrande continued to represent himself, and failed to preserve any of the legal issues that might have won him relief in federal court.

Over the years, attempts have been made to intervene. Attorneys have visited LeGrande in hopes of helping him with appeals. LeGrande refused assistance, but told the lawyers that he could see people’s thoughts and desires, that he was expecting a settlement to his multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the State any day, and that he could see a circle of smoke around one lawyer’s head. Doctors have tried to evaluate Mr. LeGrande, some finding him incompetent, others finding him competent, but all agreeing that he is severely mentally ill. They noted hypomanic behaviors and grandiose delusions. LeGrande has a family history of mental illness – his sister has bipolar disorder, and his half-sister suffers from chronic paranoid schizophrenia.

Eventually, a federal court tired of the frivolous lawsuits LeGrande continually filed, and appointed counsel to represent him. By this time it was too late – federal courts can only consider issues that have previously been raised in state court, and LeGrande had failed to do so. Guy LeGrande was scheduled for execution in December of 2006. In late November, a judge declared a 60-day stay, asking three doctors to evaluate LeGrande and decide whether he was competent to be executed. The stay was extended due to difficulties in evaluating LeGrande. Thus far, LeGrande has refused to meet with the doctors, and until recently, their only opportunity to observe him has been to watch videotape – without audio – of LeGrande’s activities in his cell over a 30-day period.

Last week, the judge in the case sought further information through a hearing. LeGrande’s lawyers over the years, all of whom he refuses to acknowledge, testified about their interactions with him. One said that LeGrande does not believe he will be executed, instead he will be pardoned, given billions of dollars, and enjoy his first free meal with the Governor himself. It has been reported in the past that LeGrande can be seen marching around his cell for hours at a time, and that he anticipates living out the rest of his days on the beachfront property he will purchase with his settlement from the State. LeGrande has suggested that certain employees of the Department of Corrections have ESP, and has opened letters: “From the Constitutional and Civil Rights Office of the Director for the National Coalition of Black Secret Agents Enslaved at Central Prison.”

For its part, the State insisted that LeGrande is an intelligent man who took deliberate steps to avoid capture. (The State seems to confuse mental retardation with mental illness, and conflates competency to stand trial with competency to be executed.) Ellen Munford’s parents and children have been very vocal about their desire to see LeGrande executed.

The most interesting aspect of the hearing is that LeGrande agreed to be questioned by the judge. His statements have been described as “articulate, but rambling.” Although able to cite statutes by number, LeGrande made off references to Albert Einstein and Clarence Thomas. He refused to directly answer the judge’s questions about whether he believes he will be pardoned and other significant matters. He used profanity in court. Although LeGrande grasped that the purpose of the hearing was to examine the issue of his competency, he didn’t seem to think he was a necessary part of the process. He referred to himself as a “conscientious observer” and spent much of the hearing leaning back and swiveling in his chair.

Doctors say that LeGrande most likely suffers from one of the following: (1) Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar type, (2) Bipolar 1 Disorder, Manic with psychotic features, or (3) Delusional Disorder. All of these would affect Mr. LeGrande’s ability to understand the fact of his impending execution, and perhaps also to understand the real reason for it. At trial, of course, these disorders would have impaired his ability to work with counsel, much less represent himself, but that issue is moot now.

The United States Supreme Court recently heard the case of Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic Texas man allowed to represent himself at trial, with much the same result as Guy LeGrande. The Court is re-examining the standard for competency to be executed, and considering, in light of its decisions about the mentally retarded (Atkins) and juveniles (Roper), whether the execution of the mentally ill serves any legitimate purpose. This blog entry gives information on recent reform efforts in North Carolina. (That bill is still in committee.)

As for Guy LeGrande, the State has made it clear that they intend to execute him as soon as possible. If the court finds LeGrande competent, the State will set an execution date to be carried out when the lethal injection debate is resolved. LeGrande insists there is a method to his madness. (When asked about a time he claimed to see anvils falling from the sky, LeGrande said, “When I make these little conundrums, these riddles, I’m alluding to another situation.”) He says that if he is executed, it will not be because he chose to represent himself. “I didn’t fail, the law failed.” At least he’s right about one thing.


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