A Killer’s Plea 

Clarence Ray Jr.’s defense wants California’s highest court to spare his life because he’s mentally retarded

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002

In an appeal that could set the terms for releasing all mentally retarded inmates from California’s death row, a convicted killer is asking the state’s highest court to lift his death sentence because of his impairment.

The petition, filed on behalf of Clarence Ray Jr., comes in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June that called execution of the mentally retarded “cruel and unusual” and banned the practice. The court left it up to the states to figure out how to define retardation, with the expectation that each state’s lawmakers would come up with their own set of rules. But an effort to get a law passed in California in August fell apart, essentially throwing the matter to the courts.

Ray’s petition, the first of its kind in California, opens the door for the state Supreme Court to both define mental retardation and determine when in the course of a trial it should be considered. It is unclear how many of California’s 612 death row inmates might make a similar claim. By some estimates, anywhere from 2 to 10 percent of the death row population may suffer from mental retardation — an L.A. Weekly investigation earlier this year found 10 possible cases among the 183 death-row inmates from L.A. County.

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Ray, now 46, was sentenced to death for shooting and killing a woman and wounding her companion during a 1984 holdup in the parking lot of a Bakersfield country-western bar. His mental impairment is well-documented. He suffered fetal alcohol syndrome and, when he was 6, was placed in classes for the mentally retarded after he scored 75 on an IQ test. Around that time an examiner noted Ray’s “verbal ramblings and seemingly purposeless movements of hands and body,” called his concept of place “vague” and found that “his basic understanding of words is extremely meager.”

At age 16, Ray’s mental condition deteriorated when a chemical explosion at a rustproofing plant where he worked put him in a coma for four days. Ray went through a prolonged recovery, and doctors monitoring his condition performed an IQ test. It came in at 70. Ray’s uncle, Robert Ray, who testified at the murder trial and is the only family member who continues to keep in touch with him, said in an interview that his nephew was “always slow” and “never seemed right in the head.”

Ray’s attorney, Charles Bush, who has been working on the case for nearly 12 years, has long known of his client’s mental impairment — the issue was raised at Ray’s original trial 15 years ago. But mental retardation could not keep a convicted killer off of death row — until now. Once the U.S. Supreme Court made its ruling, Bush immediately began working on the appeal. “This is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Bush said. “Clarence has a very substantial claim.”

John Thawley, the prosecutor who is scheduled to file the reply to the Ray petition for the California Attorney General by December 2, declined to comment on the merit of the claim. “We’re on the cutting edge of the wave, I guess,” he said. “We’ll just have to respond with our brief and let the Supreme Court decide.”

The evidence of Clarence Ray’s mental retardation is intertwined with the details of a bleak and brutal childhood in the slums of Detroit. According to depositions and court testimony of friends and family members, Ray’s mother, Shirley, had a history of mental illness and once tried to commit suicide as her three children watched. She drank excessively and gave alcohol and drugs to her children, who would go for days without food. She often worked as a prostitute, bringing her customers home to the family’s tiny rundown apartment and forcing her three children to have sex with her and with her customers.

By age 7, Clarence Ray had developed a glue- sniffing addiction. Later he became addicted to other drugs including marijuana, methamphetamines and PCP. At one point, Robert Ray recalled, the courts sent the children to live with their grandmother in Kentucky. But Shirley Ray was unwilling to let her children be. “They were doin’ pretty good a year or two until she came and stole ’em back,” Robert Ray said. “She took ’em right back down. They never had a chance.”

Clarence Ray was first imprisoned in 1974, when he was 19, for second degree murder. While in prison he befriended fellow inmate James Frederick Schulz. In 1984, soon after Ray was paroled, he reunited with Schulz, who Ray’s attorney said had a dominating personality and was the leader of the two. Within a few months, Ray and Schulz were involved in a Michigan murder where the victim was stabbed 66 times. Ray later told a probation officer that he was high on drugs and alcohol at the time of the killing and did not remember it. Ray and Schulz fled to California where they landed in Bakersfield and held up a liquor store. A few days later, outside a country-western bar called Tex’s Barrel House, the pair tried to rob Mark Emmet Doss, 56, and Kathy Lynn Hyde, a 31-year-old cocktail waitress and mother of two. A scuffle followed and both Hyde and Doss were shot. Doss recovered. Hyde died several days later.

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