Shawn Grell, currently on Arizona death row for murdering his two-year-old daughter Kristin, was recently granted a new sentencing hearing. The argument is whether or not Grell is legally considered mentally retarded; during his trial, Grell’s defense submitted two experts that said he was retarded, but when required by the court to submit to a State expert, Grell refused. The court decided then that Grell was not mentally retarded and sentenced him to death. With the Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, it became Unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment (which bars cruel and unusual punishment) to execute any person found legally mentally retarded. This decision was published after Grell’s sentencing and during appeal, and his defense lawyers jumped on it with both feet.
Defense attorneys and prosecutors are fighting battles over the most minuscule facts and findings. In most states, when the death penalty is considered, the burden is on the defense to present clear evidence of a mental capacity that makes the suspect incapable of understanding the gravity of his crime. Only New Jersey puts the burden on the prosecution instead. In Arizona, the defense is required to soundly prove that the suspect is truly mentally retarded; it begins with an IQ below 75, then goes on to at least two psychologists weighing in on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the suspect’s ability to adaptively function in society.
After Grell’s flat refusal to submit to a state expert, it absolutely galls me that his defense is appealing the sentence on the grounds that their client might be mentally retarded. What’s more galling is that the Arizona Supreme Court granted the new sentencing hearing. Another argument being made is that Grell was sentenced by a judge rather than a jury–however, this was well before Arizona enacted the law that required death penalty sentences to be decided by juries. What the news hasn’t told you is that Grell knowingly waived his right to trial before a jury, opting instead for a judge-only trial, then tried to turn around and demand a jury for his sentencing in the first trial. The Judge, within her rights, said NO, you waived your right to a jury, you get me for sentencing, too.
What I’m about to do is going to be a little disturbing. If you are easily affected by descriptions of crimes, I suggest you skip this part.
Imagine you’re watching a young, blond man play with his toddler daughter at McDonald’s. He feeds her, takes her into the jungle gym, then puts her in the car and drives away. He stops to get some beer and drinks a couple while she sleeps in the back seat. He drives a little while longer, then stops to buy a small plastic gas can, then gets back in the car and drives some more. He then stops to fill the gas can, gets back in the car, and drives some more.
He makes his way out to Apache Junction, the middle of nowhere outside of Phoenix, and cruises for a desolate spot. He finally finds a drainage ditch about ten feet away from the road; the area is unpopulated except for this lonely stretch of state highway. The young man takes the two-year-old girl out of the car, still sleeping, carries her to the ditch and lays her on the ground. He has brought the gas can with him, which he opens–and begins to pour the gasoline over his tiny daughter’s sleeping form. She wakes up to the feel of the liquid on her skin and the stench of the chemicals. She looks at the young man, her father, wondering what he’s doing. She wonders why she’s in the mud with daddy looking down at her, innocently clueless as to what daddy is doing.
Then, the young man lights a match and flicks it at her, setting her gasoline-soaked body and clothing ablaze. She jumps up and screams, running around and stamping her tiny feet, crying for daddy. The horrific pain of the extreme burns is finally dulled by the smoke that chokes the oxygen from her blood, and she drops to her knees before falling face-down in the dirt. The young man gets in his car and drives around before going back to see if the fire had gone out. Then he stops at another convenience store for more beer, where he tells the clerk that he’d seen some kids setting a dog on fire by the roadside a few miles back. “What is the world coming to when kids set dogs on fire?” he asks the attendant, who was so disgusted by the tale that he never forgot it.
Later that night, the young man is pulled over for driving drunk and is arrested. Upon his release, he calls Capitol police and tells them what he’s done and where to find the little girl’s body. Officers reach the scene far too late; they find several charred patches on the ground, littered with melted hair clips, partially burned candy, and a trail of tiny footprints that forge a twelve-foot path to the body of the tiny girl they were told would be there. The only part of her body spared the third- and fourth-degree burns are the bottoms of her little feet.
I cannot imagine what it was like for the officer who had to go to Grell’s home to arrest him. Knowing what he’d done, had I been that officer, I’d have happily turned in my badge to slowly beat that monster to death. It is a testament to the goodness of the police officers you never hear about on the news that Grell was delivered to the Madison Street Jail without so much as a harmed hair on his head.
A lack of education or high intelligence does not absolve one of a horrific crime. Even the mentally retarded understand the finality of death and the fact that murder is wrong. Grell held a job and dated, proving he was perfectly capable of adaptive functioning. The way I see it, there’s a really simple way to prove whether Grell understood what he was doing. Does he understand that being burned is horribly painful? Yes. Does he understand that killing someone is wrong? Yes. Did he plan what he was doing? Yes–not only does the evidence from the convenience stores prove it, he admitted it openly to the media.
Considering the extreme evidence and the particularly depraved manner in which Grell committed this crime, I am left incredulous and flummoxed that we’re debating whether this guy understands his crime well enough to be put to death for it. Any person who has the capacity for such inhuman cruelty can only serve the world by leaving it. Either way, though, there’s a special circle in hell reserved for Shawn Grell. He’ll get there eventually, whether we help him along or not, and God will grant the justice that we don’t have the stomach for.