The New Yorker:
Billy Joe Wardlow, who is forty-five and has been on death row in Texas since he was twenty, is scheduled to be executed on July 8th. When he was eighteen, he shot and killed an eighty-two-year-old man named Carl Cole, while stealing Cole’s truck from his home, in the poor hamlet of Cason, in northeast Texas.
At his trial, in 1995, Wardlow testified that he had intended to intimidate Cole, not kill him, when he brandished a .45-calibre pistol he had stolen from his mother. Cole grabbed Wardlow’s arm, and Wardlow fired the gun, shooting Cole between the eyes. A jury convicted Wardlow of capital murder and sentenced him to death. Until then, he had never committed a violent offense. To sentence him to death in Texas, the jury had to decide that he “would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society”: in other words, the jury had to predict that he would be dangerous in the future.
Wardlow has petitioned the Supreme Court to stay his execution. He is asking the Court to consider whether the Texas death-penalty statute is unconstitutional as it was applied to him—and to forty-four other people on the state’s death row who, like him, were sentenced for crimes committed when they were under twenty-one. The heart of the argument is that a person’s brain continues to develop until he is in his early twenties and, as a result, so does his character. The petition points to recent neuroscientific research, which has established that a young adult’s brain has not fully evolved the capacity to manage emotions, which can make an individual act impulsively and impetuously, obtuse about risks and consequences. That also gives a young adult more potential for reform than an adult. It’s not possible to predict that a young person who committed a violent crime is likely to commit another.
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