Film delves into executed man's mental illness

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

   NASHVILLE - A film dealing with the mental illness and last living moments of Robert Glen Coe, the only man executed in the state of Tennessee in the last 43 years, will make its public premier this evening.
   Coe was tried and convicted of the Sept. 1, 1979 murder of Cary Ann Medlin, age 8, of Greenfield, a small town approximately 50 miles north of Jackson. According to eyewitness accounts of the incident, Medlin was abducted from a church parking lot where she was riding her bicycle with her stepbrother.
   Medlin's body was found the day after she had disappeared lying in a ditch off of a deserted road north of the town. Police reports stated that she had been raped and then fatally stabbed.
   Two days after her body was found, on Sept. 4 of 1979, Coe, who was 23 years old at the time and lived in the nearby town of McKenzie, was arrested as he was preparing to board a bus bound for Georgia. Police allege that Coe confessed to killing Medlin within 10 minutes of being arrested.
   In 1981 Coe was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing Medlin. He was sentenced to two life sentences for aggravated rape and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to death on the count of murder.
   With his conviction began a 19-year court battle that ended in 2000 when Coe, who was 44 at the time of his death, became the first person executed by the state of Tennessee since 1960 and the first person in the state to be executed by means of lethal injection.
   During the trial and the execution, controversies arose over circumstantial evidence and physical evidence that was lost or incorrectly destroyed in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation laboratory. There were also allegations that Coe's confession was the result of police coercion and debate arose over the fact that Coe had been diagnosed not only as mental ill, but also as having an IQ that bordered on mental retardation.
   Reports from the Jackson Sun newspaper from the time of Coe's execution indicate that there were conflicting eyewitness descriptions of the person who abducted Medlin as well as the vehicle he was driving; witnesses identifying someone other than Coe as the kidnapper during a police line up; and bloody clothing which belonged to someone other than Coe, which subsequently disappeared before the case was completed.
   Dixie Gamble, a screen writer and psychotherapist, became interested in the Coe case when she moved back to Tennessee from Los Angeles after her son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the birth of her grandchild. After her son's diagnosis, Gamble joined the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in an effort to learn more about the disease that afflicted her son.
   "At the same time all of this happened, the state was about to execute the first person in 40 years and he was mentally ill; he was schizophrenic," Gamble said. "When I started researching the case I began to realize how mentally ill he was and I began to doubt that he had even committed these crimes."
   Gamble then joined the effort to stay the execution of Coe. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Coe's execution briefly on April 4 of 2000 stating that it wanted to review Tennessee's procedures for determining mental competency for execution. Fifteen days later, Coe's stay ran out and he was executed in the early morning hours of April 19.
   "When the execution finally happened, it brought me to my knees. I was home alone and I just screamed out loud in my bedroom," Gamble said. "I had so much pain inside of me that I sat down and wrote the screenplay for this film in about 20 minutes."
   The film lasts approximately 20 minutes and examines Coe's mental illness and his last 15 minutes of life, taking the viewer on a ride through the events leading up to his execution.
   "This project was birthed from personal passion and pain after my efforts to halt the execution of a severely mentally ill man, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, proved in vain," Gamble said. "The night Robert was killed, I promised that he and others like him who walk through this life without a voice would be granted an artistic venue for their story. Since this execution was Tennessee's first in 40 years, I chose film as the appropriate vehicle.
   "I wanted to show the public what they were condoning. While the film is intense and disturbing, my sense is that we need our complacency rattled when it comes to our tax dollars funding the killing of some of our most vulnerable citizens."
   Gamble said the message she wanted to get across with her short docu-drama film was "the inhumanity of executing the mentally ill."
   According to Gamble as well as other accounts of the trial, Coe spent three years in a mental health facility in Florida prior to the death of Medlin. Gamble stated that Coe's mental illness was never brought up during his trial. "The mentally ill are the most vulnerable among us," Gamble said. "What does it show about us as human beings when we don't protect the vulnerable among us; we kill them."
   Titled "Beyond Right and Wrong," the film is slated to go to the Sundance Film Festival in the short film category either this year or next. The public will have their first opportunity to view the film tonight in Nashville at 7 p.m. at the Belcourt Theatre.
   The film was privately viewed during the joint conference of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing in October of this year. According to Gamble, Coe's family, who at first had mixed feelings about the film, also viewed the film on that night. "When I spoke to Bonnie (DeShields, who was one of Coe's four siblings) I told her it was going to be rough to watch and she said 'Dixie we watched our brother be executed. We can watch this film,'" Gamble said. "At the end of the film they were crying but Bonnie looked at me and said 'We're crying but they are tears of joy.'"
   Up until the end, Coe denied kidnapping, raping and murdering Medlin, despite his alleged confession to investigators, according to Gamble. "Robert's actual last words were 'I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing me for something I did not do and I forgive Charlotte Stout (Medlin's mother) for helping the state execute me,'" Gamble said.