A Travesty in Texas

On June 13, 2005, Michael E. “Peewee” Walker, a code enforcement officer for the city of Commerce, Texas, arrived, tires squealing, at the home of Dr. Ralph and Nancy Ward. Parking askew and against the flow of traffic, he leapt from the car, angrily threatening and cursing the Ward’s adult son, who was washing his car outside the home. Walker, who as rumor had it also was involved in the drug culture of the city, took pictures and apparently walked onto the property without consent.

In his consternation, Ward inadvertently and briefly allowed water from the hose he was holding to spray Walker, which only exacerbated Peewee’s apparent irascibility. Ward retreated into the home, as his father exited through another door to investigate the commotion. At that point the younger Ward exited the house carrying a pistol, with which he shot and killed Peewee Walker.

As Dr. Ward took the pistol from his son’s hand, Adam, with a blank look in his eye, asked, “Dad, what just happened?” Apparently he had blacked out, as though in the midst of a seizure, and was unaware of much of what had happened until his father apprised him. At that point, Adam lay face down in the road in front of the house, saying that if he did not do so, the police would surely kill him.

Adam was probably right. The police, the city of Commerce, and representatives of the local school district had nursed an animus for Adam and his family since he was in elementary school.

The problems began when Adam started to school, not because he was willful, as many thought, but because he had diagnosable neurological impairment. Warren Weinberg, MD, a neurologist in the Dallas area, diagnosed Adam as a child with a neurological disorder he called a “primary disorder of vigilance.” It is not clear exactly how that inference might comport with contemporary diagnostic criteria, but even a rudimentary understanding of “vigilance” and neurological functioning suggests that Dr. Weinberg likely was suggesting a prefrontal cortical dysfunction, which has been empirically linked to problems with affective and impulse regulation, as well as attention and vigilance.

At the time of Adam’s trial in 2007, Warren Weinberg was dead, and his diagnosis was never entered into evidence.

As a contracted consultant, I carried out several psychological assessments with Adam beginning in the primary grades until he was in high school. My work focused on his emotional functioning, but I typically was privy to cognitive and academic data gathered around the same time by school personnel. In addition, I typically did a brief neuropsychological screening as a part of my work. With Adam I consistently found evidence of both a mood disorder (usually depression) and “soft signs” of neuropsychological dysfunction. Because of his reading disorder, I often read him the questions on any paper-and-pencil instrument I gave him when he was older. Frequently during such a procedure, he would, for want of a better term, “go blank” on me. Lasting only a few seconds typically, these moments were characterized by blocked sensory input (he invariably did not hear any item I had read during them) and more or less complete detachment from his surroundings. On his return to a more normal state, he was bewildered and a little disoriented for a few moments. These episodes were clearly of neural origin and resembled a short absence seizure. (For the record, I have Adam’s consent to disclose the facts of our professional relationship.)

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to testify about any of my findings and observations.

On the first day of the trial, and based on subpoena, I had gone to the court house and was sworn as a witness. To my dismay, the prosecution blocked my testimony throughout the trial, including the punishment phase, claiming that I was a friend of the family. The judge accepted that notion, despite that it was based on blatant lies by the prosecution, and kept my professional knowledge of Adam’s condition from the jury. An understanding of Adam’s neuropsychological organization and its potential for explosive impulsivity and a loss of control, often with limited awareness, could perhaps have altered the sentencing phase of the trial in a significant way.

Traumatic issues may also have figured significantly in Adam’s functioning and the circumstances of his actions. Early on in his school he was “managed” extensively with the use of a specially constructed timeout box, sometimes being required to stay in the box virtually the entire school day. He consistently describes this experience as very frightening and uncomfortable. In intermediate school the district retained a male aide who routinely used strong and sometimes violent force with Adam to ensure compliance. I have seen photographs of the bruises and contusions he sustained during this time, and it was clear that this aide used force in excess of that which was prudent with a child Adam’s age. It is clearly within the province of reality to suggest that Adam may be suffering a form of posttraumatic stress disorder originating in childhood. Obviously, such conditions could easily exacerbate the neurological conditions described above.

There were a number of problems with the trial itself.

The trial should have been moved to a different venue. It is not just an alleged paranoia of Adam’s family that convinces me that public officials in Commerce, Texas, had something of an animus toward the Ward family. Commerce police and other city officials persistently harassed the family. Of note, Terry Miller, then a Commerce police officer at the scene of the shooting said, “Well, boys, we finally got him on one that he can’t get out of.”

In the last meeting of Adam’s educational planning committee that I attended (a tortuous 9-hour affair), it was plain that the school district was willing to dismiss multiple prior diagnoses that they had commissioned and readily accepted in earlier meetings simply to be rid of him. Even when Adam and his family prevailed in this meeting (the facts being too obvious even to their own consultant, and Adam’s teachers, for it to have been otherwise), the school offered him an early graduation and a cash stipend so that he would leave school early.

Not surprising, pretrial publicity in the media vilified Adam and cast Walker, whom at least one official complaint lodged with the city by a neutral party describes as hostile and provocative, in a much more positive light. Adam was condemned in the press, his medical and psychological histories were largely ignored or dismissed by the prosecution and the judge, and it was generally assumed that he had, with cold and calculating foresight, taken the life of an innocent city employee in retaliation for his just doing his job. The county had generally taken up a cudgel against Adam and his family before the evidence was heard. There was no denying that Adam had killed Michael Walker, but the man whom the jury condemned to death bore little resemblance to the actual Adam Ward. There was no way that Adam could have gotten an unbiased trial in the court he was tried in.

At one point during the trial a consultant to the prosecution, Paul Zelhart, PhD, was seen during two lunch recesses dining with and conversing with members of the jury, including the jury foreman. When these observations were brought to the judge, the prosecution argued that Dr. Zelhart was not in any way working as a consultant for them, this despite his continually leaning over the bar throughout the trial and whispering things to the prosecution team. Moreover, Dr. Zelhart, who was originally trained as a research psychologist, has for some time billed himself on one of his three LinkedIn identities as an “independent legal services professional.” Perhaps most important, on the first day of the trial, Dr. Zelhart, dressed in a suit and tie, and carrying a clipboard with a list of witnesses to be sworn in, was checking off those of us who were present. It is difficult to imagine that this activity was not in the service of at least one side of the case, and not, as we are asked to imagine, only as an interested but detached observer, or perhaps some sort of legal hobbyist. Otherwise, how would he have had the list of witnesses? Observers in the court room who watched him did not see what he was doing as based in friendship with the district attorney, but rather as actively contributing his thoughts about the ongoing process to the prosecution team. At one point during a recess another observer saw him take a back stairway from the courtroom, a stairway that allows backdoor access to the district attorney’s office.

Adam’s court-appointed lawyers took a completely different tack to his defense than might have been effective. They focused on what I am told is a Wiggins defense, in which the defendant’s guilt is mitigated by a destructive family environment in his developmental years. Multiple experts testified that Adam and his father (Dr. Ralph Ward) shared a delusional disorder. This diagnosis was made with limited contact with Adam himself and almost no contact with his father. Dr. Ward was painted by several experts, who had never met him, as delusional, with bizarre beliefs about secret societies and paranoid thinking surrounding collusion between the local school district and city officials. It appears that this multitude of second-hand inferences derives from the report of one mitigation consultant, whose own report appears itself to have been based in part on a highly speculative and unprofessional home study done at the request of the prosecution. Another mitigation consultant, Toni Knox, after some serious investigation concluded that, though she had doubted it initially, indeed there was significant substance to the assertion that the city and the school system did “have it in” for the Ward family.

In spite of testimony to the contrary, Adam’s parents made significant efforts to help him through his obvious difficulties from very early in his life, consulting multiple professionals on their own, as well as following many of the suggestions of school officials. Very few parents of my acquaintance would have been particularly successful with anything like conventional strategies with such a child, and I would include most mental health professionals in that judgment. His parents never gave up on Adam, but the task was formidable almost beyond belief. His bond with his father, though it may have been flawed (as most of them are – the nature of our species, human development, and individuation being what it is), gave him a companion, activities he enjoyed (e.g., scouting, camping, collecting, learning to play baseball, etc.), and a platform for becoming a functional adult. I find it astonishing that the mitigation consultants generally agreed on a “shared psychotic disorder” as linking Adam and his father, especially for those members of the team who never actually spoke to his father – which was most of them.

In the sentencing phase of the trial, the prosecution failed to show that Adam intended to obstruct Walker in carrying out his professional duties (he had already completed these), or that he was attempting to retaliate against Walker. One of these possibilities needed confirmation for the jury to assess the death penalty. Reportedly, Walker was yelling threats at Adam from the moment he had arrived at the property. It is plain in the record that from childhood, when threatened, Adam tends to “go blank” (possible complex seizure activity, consistent with his medical record), behave irrationally and aggressively, and often show remarkable strength for his size. If something such as this happened, and I believe it did, Adam was simply acting defensively, with obstruction or retaliation the farthest thing from his mind (which was itself most likely blank). When his father took the weapon from him after the shooting, Adam looked confused and asked, “Dad, what just happened?” When his father testified to this fact during the trial, the court-appointed defense attorney immediately passed the witness. One can only wonder why such an important fact was so summarily ignored by the defense, a fact that, more than the distortions and exaggerations that made up the Wiggins defense, could have had a significant material effect on the outcome of the trial and Adam’s sentencing.

The jury did not hear the discussion among attorneys and the judge regarding obstruction and retaliation, and thus the appropriateness of capital sentencing (it was off the record for them). The prosecution argued that considerations of the sort would confuse them, and again the judge ruled in their favor. If consideration of relevant points of law in a matter of life and death would confuse the jury, then so be it: let them be confused under the law rather than cocksure in their ignorance of it.

The jury in Adam’s trial found that he had killed Michael Walker, a conclusion that was not in dispute. They then sentenced him to die as a consequence, a decision that was based at best on incomplete information concerning Adam’s neurological and psychological functioning, distortions concerning his family history and his family’s functioning, and, indeed, the absence of relevant facts that were available to his defense team. All of the relevant information I have provided here was readily accessible by the principal attorneys involved in Adam’s defense and appeals, i.e., Dennis Davis, Lydia Brandt, and David Dow. The question of mens rea (Adam’s state of mind at the time of the killing) is unavoidable in such a light.

My dear reader, though you may well not be opposed to capital punishment in general, if you are thinking within the law, and, indeed, within the bounds of human decency itself, you must oppose it in this case especially. I pray that you will consider the significant limitations, distortions, and simple malice that have us to the point that Adam Ward is scheduled to be killed by the State of Texas early in 2016. Pray, if it is your way, for justice. And just as important, work as you can to save this man, whose crime, by definition, could not have been capital, and who thus should not have to die for it.





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