Steven Kenneth Staley's guilt was never much in doubt. The facts of the case, attested to by multiple witnesses, were clear. One evening in 1989, Staley and two female accomplices showed up at a Tarrant County Steak & Ale with guns. When police showed up, Staley took the restaurant manager hostage, shoved him in a hijacked car, and shot him several times as the trio pulled away.
A jury convicted him of capital murder in 1991 and sentenced him to death.
The lingering question in the case, the one that has caused his execution to be stayed no fewer than seven times and has kept appeals courts tied up for more than two decades, is whether Staley, a paranoid schizophrenic, is fit to be executed.
In 2006, Tarrant County Judge Wayne Salvant ruled that he was not after a pair of doctors testified that Staley was unable to understand why he was going to be put to death. At that point, he had been hospitalized more than 20 times during his stint on death row for as long as nine months. He often claimed the medication he was given was an attempt to poison him.
Two months after his initial competency ruling, Salvant once again called Staley to his courtroom, a scene that was described by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
During the hearing in Salvant's court Tuesday, Staley, seated at the defense table, picked at his unruly hair and red jumpsuit and could be heard mumbling nonsensical phrases.
At one point, he put his handcuffed hands on the back of his head and said something that sounded like "Whoop! Tootie fruity. Want to go back to my cell now."
Clearly, not someone the state of Texas could execute without drawing cries of cruel and unusual punishment. So Salvant, at the urging of prosecutors, settled on a nifty workaround: force Staley to take anti-psychotic medication, thereby rendering him sane enough to receive his lethal dose of sodium thiopental.
Last year, Staley was returned to Tarrant County for another competency hearing. He was still occasionally delusional, but had improved markedly after years of medication. Instead of claims that an "electric polygraph" was transmitting thoughts into his head, which he had made to psychiatrists a couple of years before, his delusions were mild. He was convinced, for example, that he was in possession of "180 zillion dollars."
More important, he showed a clear grasp of his circumstances. Here's how an appeals court summarizes the psychiatrists' findings:
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He knew the names of the defense attorneys, the prosecutors, and the victim, and that he was convicted of killing a man during the course of a robbery of a restaurant. Appellant said that he thought he had received a fair trial except for the admission of certain extraneous-offense evidence during the guilt stage. He knew that the death penalty was, in his words, to "retribute the public for a heinous crime." He understood that the process for the death penalty is lethal injection after "6:00 p.m. at night on the date of your execution" and could name two of the three lethal fluids. He explained death as permanently going to sleep and said he did not believe in an afterlife.
Voila. Problem solved. But then, two days before Staley was to be ushered into the death chamber, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the final say criminal matters, began mulling a new question: Is it really kosher to force-medicate a death-row inmate for the sole purpose of making him sane enough to kill?
The court doesn't get around to settling that question. Instead, its opinion focuses on explaining why the trial court in this case lacked the authority under law to order him to be involuntarily medicated. We'll chalk that up as a "maybe."
The ruling is undeniably good news for Staley, who is granted an indefinite, but not necessarily permanent, reprieve.