Stephen Michael West is scheduled to be executed in Tennessee on August 15, 2019. Please reach out to Governor Bill Lee and ask him to commute Steve’s death sentence to life without parole. You can email Governor Lee at email@example.com or call him at (615) 741-2001.
Stephen Michael West: A Person with Severe Mental Illness and Chronic Childhood Trauma
Stephen Michael West (Steve) is a man with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Doctors working for the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) diagnosed him and have treated him with a regimen of powerful anti-psychotic medications since 2001. Without these medications, Steve’s mental status would likely deteriorate to a point where he could become incompetent to be executed. His extensive history of childhood abuse and mental illness has shaped every aspect of his life, leading to a tragic crime, but information about this history was never provided to his jury. Despite his severe mental illness, Steve has a good disciplinary record and is not a threat to prison personnel. Given these facts, Steve West cannot be considered the worst of the worst offenders for whom the death penalty is supposed to be reserved, but Tennessee has scheduled his execution for August 15, 2019. It is unconscionable for the state to treat his severe mental illness, rendering him competent, only then to execute him.
From birth, Steve West’s childhood was defined by horrible circumstances, which shifted between brutal physical and emotional abuse and total neglect. Steve was born in a mental institution, where his mother was committed as a patient after attempting to kill herself while pregnant with him. His sisters don’t remember his mother ever feeding or holding Steve. They tried to sneak in food for him, mixing ketchup with water or cream with water and gave it to him in a bottle. Hunger was an ever-present fact of life as Steve’s parents controlled access to food and used it to inflict emotional abuse.
His mother beat him mercilessly, and when he was two, his aunt recalls his mother throwing him against the wall so hard that he was “knocked cross-eyed.” It took eight separate operations to correct his eyes, and he lost hearing in one ear. During his childhood, Steve’s ankles were broken at least seven times, and he also suffered from broken toes and a fractured elbow. There is some indication that he was sexually abused.
Though the abuse was severe, he never fought back. His sisters remember him curling up in a ball when his mother approached, even at the age of 14. As a result of his severe abuse and trauma, Steve developed dissociative disorder, leading his brain to “check out” to escape the present moment of unmanageable stress. These dissociative episodes are evidenced by significant memory loss. Steve recalls little from his childhood and in his adult life regularly “loses chunks of time.”
In the early hours of March 17, 1986, Steve and his co-worker of only two-weeks, Ronnie Martin, left their work at a McDonald’s to drink beer and smoke marijuana. Many hours later, they went to the home of Wanda and Sheila Romines in Union County. Ronnie knew fifteen-year-old Sheila Romines, had tried to date her, and perceived that she had publicly humiliated him. Steve did not know the Romines and barely knew Ronnie.
Sometime between the hours of 6:00 and 8:30 a.m., Ronnie Martin stabbed Sheila and Wanda Romines to death. Steve admitted that he raped Sheila, being coerced into it by Ronnie, who threatened him with weapons. Ronnie and Steve were arrested the next day. Steve had never been arrested before and had no prior criminal history. The trials were severed, and the case against Steve proceeded first. He was never offered any plea bargains. Because Ronnie was two months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the crime, he was not eligible for the death penalty. He was eventually allowed to plead guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Ronnie Martin will be eligible for parole in 2030.
At Steve’s trial, critical information was not provided to the jury. Although the question of who was the actual killer was a key issue at trial, Steve’s jury never heard a tape recording of Ronnie admitting to killing both victims. While he was in custody at the county jail, Ronnie discussed his involvement in the crimes with his cellmate, who captured the conversation on tape. In addition to this confession, Ronnie also confessed to the killings to his friend, the man who had earlier provided him with the knife, though the jury was never provided with that information either.
Because Steve’s parents paid for his defense, they forbade his attorneys from delving into the horrific circumstances of his childhood, even though it would have served as powerful mitigation evidence for the jury to consider a life sentence rather that the death penalty. The jury also never heard about how the resulting mental conditions led to his failure to help the victims at the time of the offense
Today, two of the seven surviving jurors from the trial, both of whom voted for a death sentence, support clemency for Steve West.
Once incarcerated, Steve West was diagnosed with severe mental illness which has necessitated a regimen of numerous, powerful anti-psychotic medications. In addition to his traumatic, childhood abuse and neglect, Steve has a history of severe mental illness that has only been diagnosed and treated since he has been on death row. Doctors working on behalf of the TDOC first diagnosed Steve with severe mental illness. These diagnoses have included major depressive disorder with psychotic features; chronic paranoid schizophrenia; and schizoaffective disorder with symptoms that include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized or incoherent speech, and severely disorganized or catatonic behavior.
However, the onset of Steve’s mental illness likely goes back far longer than his time in prison. According to experts, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder generally declare themselves in early adulthood. During Steve’s adolescence his schizophrenic symptoms were likely assuaged through his use of alcohol and marijuana, and his dissociative disorder was also likely well developed from the years of abuse and trauma.
Through his faith in Christ and his treatment for severe mental illness, Steve West has accepted responsibility for his role in the crime and continues to be a positive influence in the lives of those who know and care for him. Steve has been incarcerated for 33 years. Since his incarceration, Steve has not had a single violent infraction. He has demonstrated, through his interactions with his fellow inmates and the prison staff, that he is a model inmate and would not pose any threat if his life were spared and his sentence were commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Other Upcoming Execution Dates:
- Lee Hall, December 5, 2019
- Nicholas Todd Sutton, February 20, 2020
- Abu-Ali Abdur’ Rahman, April 9, 2020
Tennessee resumed execution in 2018 after nearly a decade without one. Since 2018, Tennessee has executed:
- Billy Ray Irick, August 9, 2018
- Edmund Zagorski, November 1, 2018
- David Miller, December 6, 2018
- Don Johnson, May 16, 2019
Each of these men had spent more than 30 years each on Tennessee’s death row before their executions.