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James Blake Colburn

No stay of execution for mentally ill inmate

all credits: Texas Execution Information Center
published: 27th March 2003

Any news updates on this case will be listed at the foot of this item

James Blake Colburn, 42, was executed by lethal injection on 26 March 2003 in Huntsville, Texas for the attempted rape and murder of a 56-year-old woman. On 28 June 1994, Colburn, then 34, was walking in front of his apartment when he noticed Peggy Murphy hitchhiking. He introduced himself and invited her into his apartment for a drink. He then attempted to rape her, and when she resisted, Colburn strangled her until she stopped breathing. He then stabbed her in the neck with a steak knife to make sure she was dead.

Following the killing, Colburn went to a neighbouring apartment and asked the residents to call the sheriff’s department. After Colburn was arrested, he gave a videotaped confession. He said that he killed the woman because he wanted to return to prison.

Colburn had six prior felony convictions from 1977 to 1991. In June 1980, he began serving an 18-year sentence for aggravated robbery and burglary of a building. He was paroled in January 1987. In April 1990, he began serving a 5-year sentence for arson. He was released in March 1991. (At the time, early release was common in Texas because of strict prison population caps imposed by U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice.)

Colburn also had a history of mental illness. He began seeing psychiatrists at age 14, and at 17 was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. Dr. Walter Quijano, a psychiatrist testifying for the state, agreed with this diagnosis, but nevertheless testified at a competency hearing that Colburn was competent to stand trial and was sane at the time of the murder. Defence lawyers had another psychiatrist, Dr. Carmen Petzold, examine their client, but decided not to use her testimony in court.

A jury convicted Colburn of capital murder in October 1995 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence in February 1998.

In his appeals, Col burn’s lawyers argued that their client’s trial was unconstitutional because Colburn was heavily medicated with antipsychotic drugs, rendering him incompetent to stand trial. They said that their client slept and snored loudly through parts of the trial, and when he was awake, the medication caused him to appear cold and unemotional, prejudicing the jury against him.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument, noting that Colburn’s trial lawyers thought that their client’s medicated, blank-eyed state would lead jurors to believe he was insane, and their decision to allow him to be tried in that state was a trial tactic that failed.

On death row, Colburn was frequently taken to the psychiatric ward, including a stay from June through September 2002. His lawyers say he was placed in treatment because he had been eating his faeces and drinking his urine. They noted that the only way Colburn could be considered mentally competent was through the administration of medication. Colburn’s death row nickname was “Shaky,” because of the tremors in his hands and body.

“She did nothing to upset me,” Colburn said in an October 2002 interview, a week before a prior scheduled execution date. “I was just in a bad state of mind. I was undergoing bad influences — voices, illusions — that were fuelling my paranoia.” Regarding his upcoming execution, he said, “all the turmoil — Satan, the devil — will be gone. All my past history will be swept under the rug and I’ll turn over a new leaf. I think there’s something substantially good in this.”

The day before the scheduled execution, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 against granting a stay. However, the next day, Colburn’s lawyers entered another appeal at 5:59 p.m.; one minute for the execution was scheduled to begin. It was put on hold while the Supreme Court considered the appeal. At about 8:00 p.m., the Supreme Court granted a stay, and Colburn was not executed. In January 2003, however, the court lifted the stay, and his execution was rescheduled. The Supreme Court denied Colburn’s lawyers’ requests for another stay.

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Follow-up News:

Death Penalty and Mental Illness
(an overview)

James Colburn – Case Study
(date unknown)

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