A terminally ill death row inmate who had less than a year to live was executed Tuesday evening in Oklahoma, sparking a new debate over whether sick inmates should be put to death or allowed to die of natural causes.
Jimmy Dale Bland, 49, was killed by lethal injection shortly after 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, soon after the Supreme Court rejected his last, 11th-hour appeal. Bland had a fatal case of lung cancer that had spread to his brain, and had undergone radiation treatment and chemotherapy, his lawyer, David Autry, told ABC News. Bland would have died in six months, Autry said.
"It's pointless to execute this guy," Autry said. "He was going to be dead in a few short months anyway."
Though there are no reliable statistics on how many terminally ill inmates are currently on death row in the nation's prisons, Bland appears to be one of the few inmates this close to dying of natural causes to be executed in the United States, death penalty advocates say.
His case has outraged death penalty opponents, who argue that the justice system should show mercy to death row inmates who are already dying — an usual issue that is likely to appear before courts and clemency boards more frequently as the death-row population ages.
"We will certainly see more of these cases," said Richard Dieter, the director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C. "This is going to be happening more and more."
'He Didn't Deserve to Go That Way'
In 1996, Bland was sentenced to death for shooting Doyle Windle Rains, formerly the popular mayor of tiny Manitou, Okla., in the back of the head with a .22-caliber rifle. When he was captured, Bland told police he thought Rains, who'd often hired him as a handyman, had cheated him out of some money.
Bland had killed before. In 1975, he was convicted of manslaughter for killing a soldier and kidnapping the soldier's family. He served 20 years of a 60-year sentence.
Bland had been out of prison for less than a year when he killed Rains.
Rains "was always jovial and always laughing," Barbara Tucker, a childhood friend, told ABC News. "He didn't deserve to go that way. He was too good to people."
The Same as Any Other Inmate?
Rains' family, victims advocates and the state of Oklahoma have little sympathy for Bland and say his illness should not excuse his crimes.
"If Jimmy Bland wanted to die of natural causes he shouldn't have shot Mr. Rains in the back of the head," said Assistant Oklahoma Attorney General Seth Branham.
"He's in the same position as any other inmate from the state's perspective," Branham said. "Capital punishment prevents death by natural causes."
Rains' stepchildren had a similar reaction at a clemency hearing earlier this month. "He's had enough compassion. He's had enough mercy," Gary Stringer, Rains' stepson-in-law, told the board. The board unanimously rejected Bland's request.
But, death penalty reformers argue that society does not gain anything from executing a dying man, and that Bland should have been granted clemency or granted a stay by the courts. Bland had argued that executing the terminally-ill violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"No one is going to argue that he's still dangerous," said Dianne Rust-Tierney, director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "There is something unsettling about the government doggedly getting its pound of flesh whether or not it matters anymore."
Ken Rose, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina, said execution would not serve any societal purpose, and that the government should show mercy to someone like Bland who is already suffering and dying.
"The execution just adds to that in a macabre way," he said.
An Aging Death-Row Population
Death penalty experts expect that Bland's situation will become more common as the nation's death row population ages.
At the end of 1995, there were 40 death row inmates over the age of 60. By the end of 2005, the latest date for which statistics are available, that number had grown to 137 inmates, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In that time, the country's total death row population rose by 200, to 3,254.
It is now typical to spend more than 10 years on death row, with many of the condemned serving more than 20 years before their executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
As a result, there are more and more geriatrics on the nation's death rows. Clarence Ray Allen, 76, was executed last year after spending 23 years on California's death row. He was blind, nearly deaf and used a wheelchair, according to court records.
Allen and several other older inmates had tried to avoid their executions based on their old age or infirmities — with little success in the courts. While the Supreme Court -- in some instances -- has been willing to rein in the death penalty as applied to juveniles or the mentally retarded, it has not been sympathetic to claims that executing the elderly or the ill violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"Those claims uniformly have failed," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University School of Law.
The Supreme Court rejected Allen's appeal, though Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissent, saying: "Petitioner is 76 years old, blind, suffers from diabetes and is confined to a wheelchair, and has been on death row for 23 years. I believe that in the circumstances he raises a significant question as to whether his execution would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. I would grant the application for stay."
None of those other inmates were as close to death as Bland, his lawyers say, adding that his case presented the courts with a novel legal issue.
The Supreme Court rejected Bland's appeal, and, Turley said, is unlikely to grant a similar one in the future. "For the court to say you can't execute him because he's terminally ill comes close to rejecting the death penalty as a concept," said Turley, who heads the law school's Project for Older Prisoners.
It would be too difficult for courts to decide who is "too sick" to be executed, Turley said. Inmates also are only aging and facing more terminal illnesses because they have been granted a lengthy appeals process, Turley said.
If Bland had won, "it could result in more people dying," Turley said, as legislatures would move to shorten death penalty appeals. Ironically, had Blands been granted an appeal, it could have done "a great disservice to a lot of prisoners."
If they do not succeed in the courts, terminally-ill inmates would be good candidates for clemency boards, said the Death Penalty Information Center's Dieter, adding that many states seem to want to avoid executing unusually old death row inmates.
"What is being gained here other than a measure of revenge?" he said.