Nadia Pflaum

Too Dim to Die? 

Nadia Pflaum

Steve Parkus is now officially retarded, according to Judge Robert Stillwell of the circuit court of Washington County in Missouri. The Missouri Supreme Court had asked Stillwell to decide whether Parkus, a death-row inmate at the Potosi Correctional Center, was indeed retarded, as his attorneys had argued, or competent, as claimed by experts hired by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon ("Blood Simple," June 9).

The answer would determine whether Parkus was mentally fit to be executed.

In 1987, a circuit court convicted Parkus in the murder of a fellow inmate and sentenced him to death.

His current lawyers, a team from Kansas City's Public Interest Litigation Clinic, appealed. Parkus is brain-damaged because his mother drank during pregnancy. Medical records show signs of schizophrenia from a very young age; he consistently scores in a mentally retarded range on IQ tests. Records show that he was victimized by his mother, his legal guardians and other residents of state mental-health facilities and correctional institutions, says the PILC's Sean O'Brien.

But Nixon's hired expert, a psychiatrist from Florida named Wade Myers, disagreed. As the Pitch reported earlier this year, Myers visited Parkus in prison and concluded: "Mr. Parkus in some ways is functioning in the average to high-average range of intellectual functioning." Myers did not administer an IQ test; he reported that "no additional testing was necessary."

Parkus and his lawyers are appealing his death sentence in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 Atkins v. Virginia ruling (and subsequent rulings by the Missouri Supreme Court), which stated that executing retarded persons constituted "cruel and unusual" punishment. For the appeal, O'Brien was able to obtain Parkus' childhood medical records, which had been unavailable for Parkus' earlier trials. The records contain findings by many doctors and psychiatrists who examined Parkus from the time he was 8 years old. After reviewing them, Stillwell concluded that it would be "cruel and unusual punishment to inflict the death penalty as declared in Atkins" and ruled that Parkus should spend life in prison without parole.

Contacted by the Pitch by e-mail, psychiatrist Myers declined to comment.

On the phone from the Potosi Correctional Center, Parkus said the decision didn't matter to him. Parkus said his mind was on other things, such as biblical prophecies and dreams and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "To go over and invade that country for all their gold and diamonds? I know that's what it is. I just can't prove it."

Nixon has appealed Stillwell's order. O'Brien expects the Missouri Supreme Court to make a final ruling on Parkus' sentence next spring. "If Judge Stillwell had said, 'Nah, he's not mentally retarded,' we'd be worried," O'Brien says. But with Stillwell's ruling, O'Brien adds, "it would be extraordinary indeed if they [the judges on the Missouri Supreme Court] say, 'Go ahead and execute him anyway.'"

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