Lawyer: Killer is mentally disabled, therefore should not be executed

The fate of John Henry, to be put to death in days, rests with the Florida Supreme Court.
The fate of John Henry, to be put to death in days, rests with the Florida Supreme Court.
Published June 12, 2014

On May 2, Gov. Rick Scott signed a death warrant for a Pasco County man who brutally killed a girlfriend, a wife and a stepson.

John Ruthell Henry, 63, is set to be executed Wednesday for his wife's murder after 27 years on death row. Baya Harrison has represented him for 14 years.

"I've been trying to help this guy unsuccessfully for a long time," Harrison said. "Now it's starting to get bad; we've run out of appeals."

Harrison effectively told a judge, after a temporary stay for a mental health check, that Henry was out of options.

Then something unexpected happened. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled May 27 that Florida has been misinterpreting the threshold for calling a person mentally disabled.

Under the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court has said mentally disabled people cannot be executed.

With this new information, Harrison filed a motion to bar the execution. It was denied for being untimely. He appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which is considering the case in the few days left before Henry faces lethal injection.

Florida, Harrison said, has claimed that anyone with an IQ of at least 70 is not considered mentally disabled and therefore eligible to be executed.

"If your IQ is above that, you don't even get to be evaluated, no mental health check, and no psychiatrists can examine you and see what your childhood was like," he said.

Henry was tested in the 1980s and scored a 78. With a margin of error of about 5 points and a consideration of his upbringing, including an "abhorrent childhood," his mental health history and poor social adjustment, Harrison says Henry should be considered intellectually disabled — or at least evaluated.

The Florida Attorney General's Office declined to comment for this story, but in an answer to the court, disagreed. The office argued that if Henry was mentally disabled, it would have been realized by one of the numerous doctors and psychiatrists who have examined him over the years. They cite his ability to live a typical adult life — drive a car, cultivate long-term relationships with two women, and a hold job in construction.

Harrison countered that doctors have evaluated Henry for sanity and competency to stand trial, but not for intellectual disability.

Harrison knows this appeal is probably his last shot. If the high court rules against him, Henry will in all likelihood be executed.

"I've tried everything in my power to try and help this guy, and the fact is we're out of gas," he said. "We have presented every possible legal argument and legal attack, and we've lost all down the line."

The circumstances of Henry's incarceration are particularly vicious.

He stabbed his girlfriend, 28-year-old Patricia Roddy, 20 times in 1976. They were in a car, and her children were in the back seat. He was jailed for just over seven years before being paroled in January 1983. He had been an exemplary inmate, getting a high school diploma and years shaved off his sentence for good behavior.

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He even wrote the judge a letter in jail: "My understanding have become far more greater than it once were," he wrote to then-Pasco Circuit Judge Ray Ulmer. "I, John R. Henry feel and also know that nothing like this will never take place again for me in life. I must say that I am very very sorry; and Really hope to be forgiven by our lord God, and you also Sir."

In 1984, he was arrested on charges of sale and possession of cocaine and carrying a concealed weapon. He was convicted and was awaiting sentencing when he killed his wife, Suzanne Henry, in December 1985. The recently reconciled couple, who had a history of abuse toward each other, had argued in an apartment in Zephyrhills.

The prosecutor, Phil Van Allen, said the murder was strikingly brutal. Henry held Suzanne down while he stabbed her with a 5-inch paring knife, then "watched her die while he smoked a cigarette."

Henry told a detective he covered 5-year-old Eugene Christian's face after killing the boy's mother and took him for fried chicken while Henry smoked crack. He stabbed the boy slowly in the neck as the child sat in his lap.

Henry led detectives to the body in the early morning. When the boy's feet were spotted in the underbrush after dawn, Henry "started crying," a detective said in court. "He was crying and he held on to me."

A decision is expected soon. The Florida Supreme Court will issue a written order either stopping Henry's execution or allowing it to proceed.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.