Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts execution of Kwame Rockwell

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts execution of Kwame Rockwell
TDCJ: Kwame Rockwell/Jolie McCullough: Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas

October 19, 2018

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts execution of Kwame Rockwell” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

For the second time this month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has halted an execution days before it was set to proceed.

Kwame Rockwell, 42, was set for execution Wednesday, Oct. 24. In a late appeal, his lawyers asked the high court to stop his execution, claiming he was incompetent for the punishment due to his schizophrenia. To be executed, an inmate must be able to understand his death is imminent and link it to the murder in which he was convicted.

Rockwell was convicted in the 2010 deaths of a gas station clerk and delivery man in Fort Worth, according to court records. Rockwell and two other men robbed the store and shot the two men, killing Daniel Rojas instantly and causing the death of Jerry Burnett 10 days later.

Though it wasn’t brought up at his trial, Rockwell was later diagnosed with schizophrenia in prison. His attorneys raised the issue in Tarrant County early this month, but the court ruled that Rockwell hadn’t shown a substantial doubt regarding his competency.

On Friday, a majority of the judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed, sending the case back to the trial court and ordering the judge to appoint at least two mental health experts and re-examine Rockwell’s competency for execution. Three judges, Sharon Keller, Michael Keasler and Barbary Hervey, voted to proceed with the execution.

“Mr. Rockwell is not competent for execution, which is why the state itself usually houses him in a psychiatric facility and prescribes him anti-psychotic medication,” said Rockwell’s lawyers, David Dow and Jeff Newberry, in a written statement after the stay of execution. “Mr. Rockwell has been diagnosed by both state and defense doctors as schizophrenic. His case of mental illness is severe and chronic.”

On an early March morning in 2010, Rockwell and two other men, dressed in black and ski masks, entered the Valero gas station next to Rockwell’s used car business, according to a court opinion. Rockwell had decided to rob the gas station because he was in danger of losing his lease.

A co-defendant, Chance Smith — who is currently serving a 20 year sentence for the crime — testified at trial that Rockwell was the brains behind the operation and the one who was carrying the gun. He shot Burnett, the delivery man, in an aisle, and then, after taking money from the register and office, killed Rojas, the clerk, according to the opinion.

Rockwell was arrested in San Antonio four days later, when police barged into a convenience store bathroom he had barricaded himself in and found him threatening to kill himself with a broken piece of glass.

After he was convicted and sentenced to death in January 2012, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and his appellate attorneys sought relief based on this new development. They claimed that Rockwell had told his trial attorneys that he’d suffered from paranoia and hallucinations at one point, but they thought it was a ruse and told him to “cease and desist the crazy talk,” according to a court filing.

The prosecuting office pointed out that Rockwell had earlier told his lawyers that he had no mental health problems, and the courts rejected his appeal.

But competency for execution is a question that is raised when execution is imminent since it relies on an inmate’s current mental state, and Rockwell’s lawyers objected when the trial court ruled against stopping his scheduled execution earlier this month. They pointed to a psychologist’s sworn statement that said within the last three months, Rockwell said he believed he was God and that demons built the walls of his incarceration.

Rockwell’s ruling was the court’s second stay of execution in October, and the third of the year. The two previous stays, for Juan Segundo and Clifton Williams, both stemmed from a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Texas’ method for determining if inmates are intellectually disabled and therefore ineligible for execution.

So far this year, Texas has executed 10 men, and six others are scheduled for execution through February.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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