For the fourth time in 24 hours, the Supreme Court declined to block an execution. On Thursday morning, the justices rejected a plea from Oklahoma inmate Richard Fairchild, who had asked the justices to put his execution on hold to give him time to appeal a state court’s ruling on his mental competency. But in an unsigned order, the justices refused to intervene.
There were no public dissents from Thursday’s order. Justice Neil Gorsuch recused himself, likely because he served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit when that court heard a related case in which people on Oklahoma’s death row challenged the state’s use of the death penalty.
Shortly after the court’s ruling, Oklahoma executed Fairchild by lethal injection.
Fairchild was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of Adam Broomhall, his girlfriend’s three-year-old son. Fairchild punched Adam, burned him by holding his body against a furnace, and threw him into a table.
Under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman, the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits the execution of inmates who, because of mental illness, do not understand why they are being executed. Fairchild came to the Supreme Court on Wednesday night, telling the justices that he had schizophrenia and was psychotic. He no longer comprehended why he was going to be executed, his attorneys wrote: He believed that his brother was selling drugs inside the prison where Fairchild was held, and he blamed his brother for accelerating his execution date.
The state urged the court to allow Fairchild’s execution to go forward, stressing that “the bar for competence to be executed is extremely low.” It portrayed Fairchild’s request as a delay tactic, noting that Fairchild had gone to state court to seek a competency determination just 20 hours before his scheduled execution. And, the state added, Fairchild’s lawyer had conceded just last month, at this clemency hearing, that he was competent to be executed.
The terse text of Thursday morning’s order echoed the brief orders issued on Wednesday rejecting requests from three other inmates to put their executions on hold. On Wednesday morning, the justices turned down a request from Arizona inmate Murray Hooper to block his execution; Hooper was executed by lethal injection later that day. On Wednesday afternoon, the court cleared the way for the execution of Texas inmate Stephen Barbee, who was put to death on Wednesday night. And on Wednesday evening, the court refused to block the execution of Alabama inmate Kenneth Smith, which is scheduled for Thursday.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.