Human Dignity vs Dehumanization: Mental Incompetence

Posted by Alice Hugh Brown on Nov 9, 2022 11:47:59 AM

Benjamin Robert Cole, Sr.            

Parents and teachers, especially, are familiar with children “faking” illnesses when they don’t want to go to school or to an event. Yet, as their guardians, we need to listen to and weigh the validity of their complaints.

Similarly, the justice system should serve as guardian for any person under its purview whose defense team claims mental incompetence during a trial or on appeal. Those who are part of the criminal-justice system including a judge, psychologist, prosecutor, and defense attorney must fairly determine whether the defendant meets the required “substantial threshold” for insanity, mental illness, or mental incompetence.

A number of those facing execution between now and December 2024 in Oklahoma have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. Many authorities note that experiencing long-term exposure to death row leads to some form of mental illness.

One case in point is Benjamin Cole, Sr. who was convicted in 2002 of killing his nine-month-old daughter after her crying disturbed him. He has been on death row since then. Cole has admitted his destructive actions and expressed sincere remorse for them. Unlike most defendants who cooperate with their defense teams, seeking clemency on the grounds of mental incompetency, he stated that he was mentally competent and thus fit to be executed. He has continued to maintain a belief in Jesus and has said he looks forward to “seeing his Father in heaven.”

Cole, age 57, gave the impression that he was resigned to his fate even though his attorneys were seeking clemency for him due to his diagnosed severe and untreated paranoid schizophrenia and worsening mental state. A history of mental, physical, and sexual abuse has existed within his dysfunctional family since his early childhood.

In September, Cole’s lawyers submitted a petition with the Oklahoma Board of Pardons and Parole asking for a recommendation of a life sentence without parole. The Board denied the petition stating that he did not meet the requirements for mental incompetence. Had they accepted the petition, a jury trial would have been conducted to determine Cole’s mental state. This could have led to clemency for him. It did not happen. On October 19, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a last-minute appeal for clemency.

Benjamin Cole, Sr. was executed October 20, 2022 at 10:22 am.

“It is unconscionable that the State denied Ben a competency trial. Ben lacked a rational understanding of why Oklahoma took his life today. As Oklahoma proceeds with its relentless march to execute one mentally ill, traumatized man after another, we should pause to ask whether this is really who we are, and who we want to be.”

Tom Hird, attorney for Benjamin Cole


Reflect: How necessary, for the sake of justice, do you see mental competency as an important component of a capital punishment trial? What guidelines would you consider for inclusion?

Topics: justice, mercy, Catholic social teaching, death penalty, Dignity and the Death Penalty, mental incompetence

Alice Hugh Brown

Written by Alice Hugh Brown

Alice Hugh Brown is the author of Dignity and the Death Penalty: Evolution of Catholic Teaching.

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