Stop the Execution of Horace Kelly

Why a mentally ill man remains on death row

By: Cameron Sturdevant

No one who knows Horace Kelly could claim he is sane, but that is exactly what a jury is being asked to say as this newsletter goes to print.

Horace Kelly is a 39-year-old man who has been on death row for 13 years. He is known to mutters to himself and does not answer questions logically. On his way to court the other day, he told his lawyer that the judge was about to decide whether he could join the Marines. Horace thinks death row is a vocational school - and that as soon as he gets his "certification," he can go home.

In his cell, Horace often sits in his own waste and rarely baths. Guards have to wear masks to clean his cell because the stench is so powerful. Michael Radelet, an expert on the execution of the mentally ill, said, "I've probably interviewed 300 people on death row across the country, including Horace Kelly, and he's the most impaired by far. There's no question about it. He's absolutely out of touch with reality."

Whether or not Horace Kelly is mentally fit to be executed remains in the hands of a 12-member jury. Kelly's court appointed lawyer said the state was trying to coach Horace so he could answer enough questions to meet the competency threshold for execution.

Horace Kelly's life has been filled with tragedy. At 3 years of age, his father scalded him with hot water, rammed his head into a wall and continued the abuse for years, according to his family. Horace's sister, Cynthia, in a statement given in March of this year, described their childhood: "I recall waking up one night to the sounds of my mother crying. I peeked through the crack in the door to see my mother hanging off the bed with my father on top of her, whipping her with an electrical cord. My mother was eight and a half months pregnant at this time." Cynthia goes on to describe being beaten and raped by her father and mother. She also described how Horace was also severely beaten and raped.

While this kind of abuse in no way justifies the murders committed by Horace Kelly, it is quite clear that the state of California could have provided the social services - like day care and medical and mental health services - which the Kelly family desperately needed.

Horace is the first African-American scheduled to die in California in more than 30 years. And he is also the first person being rushed to the execution chamber under the terms of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed by President Clinton.

Activists from the Campaign to End the Death Penalty held a successful press conference and picket outside the courthouse on April 6 to raise the profile of Kelly's case in both local and national media.

This helped his attorneys win a temporary stay while the state decides if Kelly is sane enough to be executed. But Horace is not out of the woods.

California's Attorney General Dan Lungren is using the Kelly case to finesse procedures that will clear the way to execute other insane inmates. Both state and federal law, along with United Nations rules, strictly prohibit the execution of insane people, even if they become insane awaiting execution.

The 12-person jury deciding on Kelly's competency has 10 whites and no Blacks. All jurors were required to support the death penalty. Even more astounding, two people who believe that capital cases drag on too long were allowed to stay on the jury. Two others are directly related to county sheriffs. And because the sanity hearing is being tried under civil, not criminal, rules, a nine-member verdict will be enough to condemn Horace - as opposed to the unanimous vote required in criminal cases.

If the jury finds Kelly incompetent, he will be sent to a mental institution for "treatment." If after treatment his mental health improves, then he may be deemed fit for execution. As Horace's lawyer put it, "Treating him just so he can be killed, now that's really insane."

Activists must take this case to the streets in order to win justice.