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Too crazy to kill? Lawyers try to stop execution of inmate they say is mentally ill

Lawyers for condemned inmate Edwin Hart Turner say it would be cruel and unusual punishment to execute someone who is mentaly ill.

Edwin Hart Turner is no stranger to mental illness.

According to his lawyer and acquaintances, his grandmother and great-grandmother were committed to state hospitals. His mother attempted suicide twice. His father was killed in a dynamite explosion that some believe was a suicide.

At age 18, Turner tried to kill himself with a rifle but the barrel of the weapon slipped just enough to spare his life; the bullet that blasted through his face left him permanently disfigured. He was hospitalized five years later when he tried to slit his wrists in another suicide attempt.

So when Turner robbed a gas station near Carrolton, Miss., early on Dec. 13, 1995, and fatally shot a clerk in the face and a customer in the head, his lawyers say, it’s almost certain that he was – and still is  – mentally unbalanced.

For that reason, says Turner’s attorney, Jim Craig of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center, Turner should not be put to death.

Turner’s accomplice, Paul Murrell Stewart, pleaded guilty to capital murder and was sentenced to life without parole. Turner was convicted at trial and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

In what he hopes will be a precedent-setting case, Craig is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court and to Mississippi’s new governor, Phil Bryant, to halt the scheduled Feb. 8 execution of the 38-year-old Turner.

“The Supreme Court has not decided the question of whether a prisoner with a severe mental disorder or disability which significantly impairs that person’s ability to rationally process information, to make reasonable judgments and to control their impulses, whether people in that category can be executed,” Craig told msnbc.com in a telephone interview Thursday.

“So we’re asking the Supreme Court to establish that it would be contrary to consensus of moral values, that it would be cruel and unusual punishment, to execute someone with severe mental illness.”

The Supreme Court in 2002 banned the execution of mentally retarded criminals. In 2005, justices ruled that it was also unconstitutional to put to death juvenile criminals. But the circumstances regarding the execution of inmates who are mentally ill - but not insane - are less clear-cut, though previous high court rulings have held that the mere presence of mental illness doesn’t necessarily exempt someone from execution.

Craig said he will also ask a federal judge on Friday to order the state to put the execution on hold so Turner can get a mental exam, including a modern type of neuroimaging scan that wasn’t available in 1995. Craig said he thinks the so-called “functional MRI” scan will show that the portion of Turner’s brain “that controls conduct that works for everyone else in this country just doesn’t work for him.”

“It’s like expecting someone with a broken arm to quarterback the Super Bowl,” Craig said. “It’s just not fair.”

Other rights groups are also backing Turner's cause.

“We’ve come a long way in our understanding of mental illness and the deep and terrible pain it inflicts on sufferers – but not far enough, at least not in Mississippi,” wrote Denny LeBoeuf, the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project director, in a blog post titled "Too Crazy to Kill." 

 “Most mentally ill people are not violent. Those who are should not be executed."

Gov. Bryant’s office and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office did not immediately return telephone calls Thursday from msnbc.com for comment.

On Wednesday, Hood told The Associated Press that Turner has been evaluated numerous times in the past.

"He has raised the issue of mental health problems at every level and has been denied relief at every turn. We argue that his mental health claims have been fully addressed, and that this present action is nothing more than an attempt to re-litigate a claim that has been properly adjudicated at every turn," Hood said, according to the AP.

Earlier, in asking the state to set the Feb. 8 execution date, Hood said in a press release that Turner has exhausted his state and federal appeals. “These crimes were brutal and nothing short of cowardly,” he said.

Ann Dugger, executive director of the Justice Coalition, a victims' advocacy group, said mental illness in and of itself is not a reason to rule out execution.

"What's cruel and unusual is that a perpetrator would have taken the life of someone else and murdered him," she said.

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