The first mission for the new leader of Columbia’s Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center is to make people aware of what her organization does and does not do.
“It’s not about abolition of the death penalty or anything like that,” said Mandy Medlock, the center’s newly hired and first ever executive director. “It’s about justice. If the death penalty is a part of the law here in South Carolina, we want to make sure it’s applied judiciously.”
South Carolina is one of 31 U.S. states that still has the death penalty, and research by the Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center and Amnesty International finds the application of the penalty anything but even-handed.
“Arbitrary is a good word,” Medlock said. She pointed out that statistics seem to indicate racial and gender biases. South Carolina currently has 45 men and no women on death row. Of those men, 26 are black. Those 26 make up 58 percent of the death row population, though only 28 percent of South Carolina’s total population is black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. South Carolina courts have sentenced 181 people to death since 1977, and 146 of those 181 were sentenced for the murder of a white person.
“We want to be part of the solution to that problem,” Medlock said.
Conversation about the death penalty has come to the forefront in South Carolina with high-profile cases like those of Timothy Ray Jones and Dylann Roof. In Roof’s case, Gov. Nikki Haley publicly called for the death penalty. Medlock said that conversation is a good thing.
“I think what we want to do is bring it to the forefront that this is a relevant issue. So many people don’t think about it,” she said.
The possibility of mental illness has been the subject of public speculation in the Jones and Roof cases. Medlock said she could not comment on the mental state of those defendants, but she said mental illness is often an issue in death penalty cases.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center, 70 percent of the men currently on death row in South Carolina suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“So many people on death row also have a recurring mental disorder or addiction or something like that that has led them to commit that crime or to not ever have had adequate treatment or diagnosis, and that’s terrifying,” said Medlock, who previously worked for the National Association on Mental Illness. “Just as a human, how do you decide if someone’s mentally ill enough to live or die?”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people with intellectual disabilities cannot be executed, but that exemption does not apply to the mentally ill.
“That’s the next big piece of advocacy around the country,” said Columbia attorney Lindsey Vann. “The reason you won’t execute somebody who has intellectual disability is because they don’t have the mental capacity to be as culpable as other people who commit crimes. The theory is that people with serious mental illnesses in the same way cannot really control what they’re doing, or they are not as culpable because of the things that are going on with their mental illness.”
Vann said another element of the unpredictable nature of the death penalty in South Carolina is that much depends on where the crime is committed.
“It depends on which county you’re in,” Vann said. “Richland County almost never seeks the death penalty. Donnie Myers, the solicitor in Lexington County, seeks it more often than any other solicitor in the state.” Myers, solicitor for the Eleventh Circuit (which includes Lexington County) since 1976, has sought the death penalty 40 times, getting it 34 times, according to state court records. Only one of the 45 men currently on death row was sentenced in Richland County, while four were sentenced in Lexington County.
The Death Penalty Resource and Defense Center works to raise awareness of the current inequities regarding the death penalty, as well as supplying resources for lawyers, sometimes public defenders, handling death penalty cases.
Medlock in her role as executive director will work to “raise awareness of the total mission of our group,” which also includes advocating with legislators. The group opposed a proposal that would have made secret the chemicals used for lethal injection and the cost of those chemicals. “I think the secrecy bill is bizarre,” Medlock said, adding that she thinks the process should be transparent. She said she expects more attempts to pass that bill, and other issues at the State House connected to the death penalty.
“They’re going to [reintroduce] a bill for the firing squad in South Carolina, so we’ll be talking about that,” she said.
Medlock emphasized that the center’s mission is justice for all and that she and her coworkers see the current death penalty system as unjust.
“We’re not doing it fairly. We’re not doing it timely,” Medlock said. “We’re not doing it in a cost-effective way, and some people are concerned about that.”