Content Warning: The following article contains discussions of state-sanctioned execution alongside mentions of violence and death.
There are a few magical birthdays in your early adulthood that come with some legal significance: age 16 you can finally get behind the wheel of a car and drive yourself to school, age 18 you can vote in elections for the candidate of your choice, age 21, you can celebrate your birthday with a glass of wine. And at 18, you can be convicted of a capital murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection in the state of Texas.
Billy Joe Wardlow, at age 45, was on death row in Texas since he was 20 and was executed by lethal injection at 6:28pm on the evening of July 8 by order of the 76th district court of Titus County, Texas after the United States Supreme Court refused to accept his petition for stay of execution. Wardlow was convicted in 1995 for a capital murder when he shot and killed a man named Carl Cole while stealing Cole’s truck from his home in Carson, Texas. Wardlow was 18 years old when convicted for this crime, and he was 20 years old when moved to death row.
At his trial, Wardlow testified that he was in a desperate situation to flee town with his then-girlfriend, both of whom were attempting to escape their abusive families and start a new life elsewhere. He testified that he had drawn a handgun in an effort to intimidate Cole, and had no premeditated intention of killing him. During Wardlow’s attempt to steal the truck, Cole grabbed Wardlow’s arm, and Wardlow fired the gun, shooting Cole between the eyes. Until that moment, Wardlow had never committed a violent offense.
Wardlow had petitioned the Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals multiple times over his extended time on death row to stay his execution. In his appeals, he repeatedly asks the Court to consider whether the Texas death penalty statute is unconstitutional as it was applied to him as well as the 44 other people on the state’s death row who, like him, were sentenced for crimes committed when they were less than twenty-one years old.
The heart of the argument is that a person’s brain continues to develop until he is in his early twenties and, as a result, so does his physiological capacity for executive decision-making and respective levels of emotional maturity. Recent research also points to the suggestion that a young person’s brain is less capable than an adult person’s brain to make decisions in situations in which the areas of the brain responsible for emotional response are highly active. Even though the cited research avoids use of these colloquial terms, many would commonly interpret these conditions as “fight or flight” situations.
This research suggests that not only can an individual act impulsively and without consideration of long-term consequence in regular decision-making, but also be precluded from considering immediate risks and consequences. While these factors don’t change the fact that young defendants like Wardlow in fact committed violent and terrible crimes, it does align with our present standards for juvenile convictions that preclude individuals under the age of 18 from being sentenced similarly to adults. It also suggests that a young person has more potential for reform than an adult, and therefore can’t possibly meet the standard—that a defendant “would likely commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society”—that most states require a jury to reach when deliberating a death sentence for capital murder. In fact, in light of these developed understandings of neurological development and the moral culpability of young adults, two jurors from Wardlow’s 1995 trial have since changed their minds on the sentence, suggesting in letters that he should’ve received life imprisonment instead.
And this reasoning is not unheard of in legal precedent. In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, SCOTUS for the first time relied on the science of human development as the foundation for a decision that barred the death penalty for anyone who was under eighteen when they committed a capital offense for exactly the same reasons that Wardlow had argued until his execution. “From a moral standpoint,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his opinion, “it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”
Roper v. Simmons drew from the precedent of the court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, which held that the eighth and fourteenth amendments barred states from executing the mentally disabled. In both Roper v. Simmons and Atkins v. Virginia, the Court declared that executions of those under the age of 18 and the mentally disabled violated eighth amendment protections because “the majority of Americans” had put forward an “evolving standard” for what constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Since these rulings in the early 2000s, public opinions have yet again changed on the death penalty: according to a Gallup poll conducted in 2019, 60 percent of Americans, when asked to choose whether the death penalty or life without possibility of parole “is the better penalty for murder,” chose the life-sentencing option, while 36 percent favored the death penalty. This majority opinion actually reflects a 15-percentage-point shift in American’s views towards capital punishment in just five years, when in 2014 Gallup reported that only 45 percent of Americans supported life imprisonment over the death penalty. And shockingly, support for capital punishment peaked at 80 percent in 1994—the same year congress passed the 1994 Crime Bill—and one year before Billy Wardlow was convicted.
There are many objections to the death penalty that extend beyond the rationale presented in Billy Wardlow’s case that have arisen over the past two decades, many of which are founded in both moral and pragmatic reasoning. Many people have developed the feeling that the death penalty fits into their conception of what is cruel and unusual, citing that capital punishment is a relic of a bygone era that prevailed alongside other practices we’ve since deemed inhumane such as slavery, stockades, lashings, and other forms of severe corporal punishment. Others argue that enforcing capital punishment is not an effective means of crime control nor an effective use of state resources. Data published by the Death Penalty Information Center shows how police chiefs since 1995 have overwhelmingly admitted that enforcement of the death penalty has not led to a noticeable reduction in arrests or crime. Similarly, courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and law enforcement personnel have consistently voiced their concerns that conducting death penalty proceedings has been a waste of the legal system’s financial resources and energy.
These objections only scrape the surface of arguments against capital punishment that have surfaced over the practice’s long history. Legal objections have risen concerning equal protections under the fourteenth amendment, religious objections have been risen over the sanctity of life, and objections have been raised by groups claiming that capital sentencing continues to bear drastic racial inequalities that lead to higher rates of improper convictions of Black and Latinx defendants that often come with severe disparities in sentencing.
Nonetheless, a great number of individuals continue to support executions for what they view as heinous and irredeemable crimes. Regardless of this opinion that condones an “eye-for-an-eye” justice in the death penalty, there is an undeniable truth that reaching the decision to sanction the death of an individual requires an acceptance that the state, under the pretense of a decision that does bear some risk of being flawed, can rightfully impose an irrevocable and more often than not arbitrary punishment that retracts an individual’s right to life.
An individual who is executed is denied the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant a resentencing or even an outright reversal of a conviction. They will never persist another day to advocate for their lives, and they will never be granted an opportunity for reaching justice that extends past the final hour of their execution date.
In plain terms: Billy Joe Wardlow is dead.