Is Executing A Man With A Brain Disorder "Timely Justice"?

December 10, 2013

Frank Walls
Frank Walls

As the state legislature of Florida debated the Timely Justice Act – a law designed to speed of executions in the Sunshine State – bill sponsor Matt Gaetz pointed to the case of Frank Walls, quipping that:

If the Timely Justice Act becomes law, Mr. Walls is going to have to start thinking about what his last meal is going to be.

The Timely Justice Act has become law, and Frank Walls, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Ann Peterson (and life for the murder of Edward Alger) is under consideration for clemency. If clemency is denied, then he indeed will be eligible for an execution date.

Frank Walls was convicted of heinous crimes. But, State Representative Gaetz’s disturbing enthusiasm for his execution notwithstanding, Frank Walls should be granted clemency.  He is a remorseful prisoner with brain disorders that have left him functioning at the level of a 12-year-old.

At the age of 12, Frank Walls contracted viral meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can result in psychiatric and developmental problems. Within a year, he was placed in the “Emotionally Handicapped Program” at school. At 16, he was diagnosed with organic brain dysfunction, with a tendency towards “psychosis” and “hallucinations,” “erratic mood swings he doesn’t recall,” paranoid tendencies and poor impulse control. By 1985, two years before the murder that would send him to death row, a child psychiatrist had assessed him as suffering from organic brain dysfunction and bipolar disorder.

In 2002, a psychiatric review of his case concluded that:

[D]ue to a combination of brain dysfunction and manic tendencies caused in part by a viral meningoenchephalitis at the age of 12, Frank Walls was very vulnerable to committing violence as he became increasingly unable to handle adult responsibilities and demands.

Will Frank Walls’ youth at the time of the crimes, his mental illness, and his subsequent remorse, be taken into consideration?

Florida’s clemency process is highly secretive and there have been no death sentence commutations in 30 years. In 2006, the ABA wrote that:

Due to the confidentiality surrounding the clemency process, it is impossible to determine the extent to which inappropriate political considerations impact the Florida clemency process.

Clemency determinations are made by the (elected) Governor and his cabinet, three members of which are also elected. The passage of the Timely Justice Act with its accompanying vocal exhortations in favor of more state killing has injected yet another dose of politics into Florida’s capital punishment system.

Florida’s clemency-granting authorities, starting with Governor Rick Scott, must rise above these political pressures. Clemency in the case of Frank Walls is warranted, and Florida should grant it.