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Mentally ill man on death row denied Supreme Court reprieve

Darryl Barwick says it would be unconstitutional to execute him but that Florida law leaves him no remedy. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — A Florida man will be put to death Wednesday evening after the Supreme Court turned down emergency requests that cited his neurological disorders. 

Darryl Barwick is facing execution for the murder of Rebecca Wendt, which he committed at age 19 after being released from prison on rape charges. The date was March 31, 1986, and Barwick entered Wendt's apartment in Panama City, allegedly intending to burglarize it after seeing that she was outside sunbathing. When Wendt tried to get Barwick to leave, he stabbed her with a knife he brought from home. 

The 24-year-old Wendt ultimately bled out from her injuries — she was stabbed 37 times — and also had 18 defensive wounds on her hands.

Barwick wrapped Wendt’s body in a comforter and put her in the bathroom before he fled the scene. He went to the woods and threw the knife into a lake. Barwick also disposed of his bloody clothes and shoes, tossing them in a dumpster. 

Wendt was found by her family later in the day. Her bikini bottoms were pulled down. A serologist determined semen stains on the comforter. 

When he confessed to Wendt’s murder, Barwick claimed he “couldn’t control” himself. 

Barwick underwent trial three times. The first ended in convictions for murder, burglary while armed, attempted sexual battery, and armed robbery. He was tried a second time after a Florida Supreme Court reversal, but those proceedings ended in a mistrial. After Barwick was found guilty as charged at a third trial — again, the jury unanimously recommended a death sentence — the Florida Supreme Court affirmed. 

Barwick’s attempts at post-conviction relief all came up empty, and Governor Ron DeSantis signed off on his execution for May 3. 

Represented by Karin Moore with the Office of the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel, Barwick submitted two emergency requests to the Supreme Court, saying it would be unconstitutional to put him to death in light of new scientific consensus on adolescent brain development.

Invoking the protections of the Eighth and 14th Amendments, Barwick describes lifelong cognitive impairments and says he exhibits severe neuropsychological disorder and low mental age. 

Moore noted that her client's mother, wished to abort Barwick before he was born and had a late-term fall down the stairs in a bid to achieve that end. Ima Jean Barwick also took birth control pills during the pregnancy and apparently snubbed prenatal care.

“The legacy of being an unwanted child would psychologically damage Mr. Barwick in years to come, but the physical in utero trauma severely damaged Mr. Barwick’s brain even before he took his first breath,” Moore wrote. “That physical damage caused a serious mental illness that has pervaded the remainder of Mr. Barwick’s life, and was exacerbated by his immaturity, and exposure to trauma and abuse.” 

As a child, Barwick faced physical abuse from his father, including intense beatings that would sometimes knock him unconscious. His attorneys say Barwick’s father once hit him in the head with a piece of lumber with protruding rebar. The resulting head trauma from his abuse was compounded by Barwick’s concussions during school as a wrestler and football player. 

The applications say Barwick's neurodevelopmental disorder appeared at the age of 4 and led him to have significant speech and language delays. At 19, Barwick had a mental age between 11 and 13. 

Citing a clause in the Florida Constitution, Barwick’s attorneys claimed the state is usurping Eighth Amendment precedent from the Supreme Court, which has held that executions of mentally ill individuals constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

“In ensuing years since the Eighth Amendment conformity clause — the only one of its kind — became part of the Florida constitution, the Florida courts have cited its purported restriction, and have increasingly relied upon it to opt out of critical Eighth Amendment analyses, including judicial determinations related to evolving standards of decency,” Moore wrote. 

Moore wrote in the brief for Barwick that Supreme Court intervention is needed to keep Florida from "turning the Federal Constitution into a ceiling, rather than a floor, for the protection of individual liberties.”

“That risk will have far-reaching implications outside of Florida," she added. "And, in Florida, that risk will manifest as reality. Evolving standards of decency — the living breath of the Eighth Amendment — will be stilled.”

Florida claims the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction to challenge its relitigation bar. 

“The Florida Supreme Court decided his exemption-from-execution claims on state-law grounds that Barwick has failed to challenge in any question presented,” C. Suzanne Bechard, Florida’s associate deputy attorney general, wrote in an opposition brief. “This Court therefore lacks jurisdiction over the questions Barwick presented and therefore should deny certiorari at the earliest opportunity.” 

Justice Clarence Thomas referred the applications to the full court, which denied both alongside petitions for certiorari without any public dissents.  

Without high court relief, Barwick is scheduled to be executed Wednesday at 6 p.m. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Criminal

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