Mentally Ill Man Receives Life Sentence After 18 Years On Tennessee Death Row

June 3, 2008 12:00 am

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NASHVILLE — A severely mentally ill man who spent 18 years on death row and whose conviction and death sentence were reversed by a Tennessee appeals court in March was sentenced to life imprisonment today. Richard Taylor, twice forced to stand trial despite his severe mental illness, agreed to the sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to the 1981 murder of a Tennessee prison guard — a crime committed only after prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication.

Taylor is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Kelly Gleason, an attorney with the Office of the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender.

“Richard Taylor’s case highlights the fundamental unfairness of capital prosecutions of mentally ill defendants,” said Cassandra Stubbs, staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “Taylor’s mental illness infected every step of the case, from the offense through trial. We are extremely pleased that he will not be executed.”

Taylor, then 21, was serving a sentence for joy-riding and robbery convictions in 1981 when he attacked a prison guard at the Turney Center correctional facility in Only, Tennessee. Despite the fact that authorities considered him mentally ill and despite the fact that he had previously tried to kill himself by swallowing glass, prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication two months before his attack on guard Ronald Moore.

Witnesses of Moore’s stabbing described Taylor at the time as raving, trembling and shaking, with wild eyes and an expression on his face like a wild horse.

“The fact that Richard Taylor was then — and is now — severely mentally ill, at a minimum means that he was not able to fully appreciate his actions,” said Stubbs. “Although the death penalty is never an acceptable sentence, even proponents concede it should be used only for the worst of the worst. Surely, individuals like Richard Taylor, who are severely mentally ill, fall outside of that category.”

Taylor, convicted and sentenced to death, sat in solitary confinement on Tennessee’s death row between 1984 and 2000, during which time he received no psychiatric services and was tortured by prison guards who beat, starved and taunted him, deliberately trying to make his mental illness worse.

“The treatment of Richard Taylor — including the physical and psychological abuse by guards and the withholding of psychiatric services by the prison — is unconscionable,” said Stubbs. “I hope that in the future the Tennessee Department of Corrections will honor its responsibility to provide the psychiatric care for Richard Taylor that he needs.”

Taylor was granted a new trial in 2003, but despite continuing to make bizarre and delusional statements, he was allowed to face his two-day capital trial alone — representing himself without even standby counsel to help him. Wearing prison garb and sunglasses, Taylor called no witnesses, introduced no evidence, and presented no defense. The few cross-examination questions he posed during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial were delusional, and he was completely silent during the sentencing phase of the proceedings. The jury that sentenced Taylor to death was never presented with compelling evidence of Taylor’s difficult childhood, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations or severe mental illness.

“Unfortunately, it is all too common for severely mentally ill defendants who suffer grandeur delusions to fire their lawyers and represent themselves at trial, believing that they will out perform their lawyers,” said Stubbs. “Richard, like other defendants who fall into this tragic category, was trapped by his own delusions and was incapable of presenting a defense or introduce the very evidence necessary to save his life.”

The ACLU’s numerous legal challenges to the 2003 trial and the proceedings leading up to it, including to the judge’s failure to hold a competency hearing during the trial when it was obvious that Taylor was incapable of standing trial and representing himself, were upheld in March when the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction and death sentence.

Additional information about Taylor’s case can be found online at:

Additional information about the ACLU Capital Punishment Project can be found online at:

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