The term "death-row volunteer" probably sounds strange -- do people really "volunteer" to be on death-row? -- but, nonetheless, it describes reasonably accurately a not-insubstantial number of those convicted murderers who have been executed in the United States since 1976. (For more detail on the death-row-volunteer issue, see this paper of mine from a few years ago.)
Today, the indefatigable Howard Bashman reports, the en banc United States Court of Appeals ruled that Robert Charles Comer, who was sentenced to death in Arizona, was "competent" to waive further proceedings relating to his federal habeas corpus petition and that he had, in fact, "voluntarily" waived those proceedings. In a nutshell, the Ninth Circuit ruled that, notwithstanding the possibility that legal errors had infected his capital-sentencing proceedings, Comer could prevent judicial correction of those errors by "volunteering" to be executed, in accord with his death sentence. (The court rejected the argument, advanced by Comer's counsel -- who were arguing, obviously, against Comer's stated wish to volunteer -- that Comer's "volunteering" was the product of harsh prison conditions.)
What should we think about this case? How should we think about death-row volunteers generally?
Perhaps the most famous death-row "volunteer" was Gary Gilmore, who imagined himself something of a romantic outlaw-hero. As is described at (great) length in The Executioner's Song, he fought, bitterly and publicly -- with the help of some publicity-hungry lawyers -- the efforts by the ACLU, his own mother, and others to prevent his execution. Gilmore insisted, in an open letter to the ACLU, "I know what I did. . . . I know the . . . effect it had on the lives of two families. I'm wiling to pay ultimately. Let me!" "Butt out of my life," he demanded. To which the ACLU responded, "We don't think the world is obliged to be governed by your preference. . . . We are not imposing our wants and attitude on you. We are seeking to impose humanity and decency upon the state of Utah."
So, again, how should we think about Gilmore's or Comer's case? On the one hand, we might follow a commitment to "autonomy" where it (appears to) lead, and say, something like, "we don't approve of the death penalty, but it's legally authorized, and it's your choice." As it happens, though, most lawyers for death-row inmates who flirt with volunteering -- and many do -- are willing to contest their own clients' efforts to volunteer and to contest, if necessary, their own client's decision-making capacity. Here is a question: If one opposes capital punishment on the ground that it is inconsistent with a commitment to human dignity, is that commitment undermined or impeached by efforts to paint one's client as "incompetent" in order to prevent him from pursuing a course that one believes will result in immoral state action?
I once represented a man who was living -- like Comer -- on Arizona's death row. He twice "volunteered" -- or started to -- but was dissuaded. If he had not changed his mind, though, what should I -- or another lawyer who opposed the death penalty but also knew that the inmate was not delusional, just tired, lonely, and remorseful -- have done?