Mental Illness

American Bar Association Issues White Paper Supporting Death Penalty Exemption for Severe Mental Illness

At a December 6-7 national summit on severe mental illness and the death penalty, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released a new white paper that it hopes will provide law makers with information and policy analysis to "help states pass laws that will establish clear standards and processes to prevent the execution of those with severe mental illness." The ABA does not take a position on the death penalty itself, but believes that "[i]ndividuals with severe mental disorders or disabilities ... should not be subject to capital punishment." The white paper describes the range of problems faced by seriously mentally ill defendants in capital cases and sets forth possible legislative approaches for exempting them from capital sanctions. The white paper, and ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass in her address to the summit, likened the diminished moral culpability of the severely mentally ill to that of two other "vulnerable groups"—juvenile offenders and defendants with intellectual disabilities—whom the court has exempted from the death penalty.  The application of the death penalty to these defendants, she said, "has been deemed unconstitutional because our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the 'worst of the worst' murderers for whom the death penalty is intended. They are less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their own defense and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These exact characteristics apply to individuals with severe mental illness." Citing national polls in 2014 and 2015, Bass said the American public "support[s] a severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty by a 2 to 1 majority." At least 8 state legislatures are expected to consider serious mental illness exemptions in 2017. Among those states is Virginia, where just this year, a jury disregarded prosecution and defense experts in the death penalty trial of Russell Brown and found him guilty despite testimony that he was insane and did not understand the nature or consequences of his actions. The jury ultimately sentenced Brown to life in prison, but, as University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett explained, "there was no statutory protection available against the highest punishment for a man who, by the admission of all experts, did not have the highest culpability." As does the ABA, Professor Garrett argues that a serious mental illness exemption is a safeguard that is necessary to reduce unfairness in the administration of capital punishment. "If lawmakers believe that we should retain the death penalty in Virginia," he wrote, "we must be confident that we are not sentencing to death severely mentally ill people who cannot be fully blamed for their actions." 

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Highlight Systemic Flaws in Pinellas County, Florida Death Penalty

Pinellas County, Florida ranks among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death rows across the United States and among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions conducted in this country since 1977. The five death sentences imposed in Pinellas between 2010 and 2015 also place it, along with three other Florida counties, among the 16 U.S. counties with the highest number of new death sentences in the country. One major reason for Pinellas' status is the high number of death sentences it has imposed after juries returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations, an outlier practice that the Florida Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. All six of the Pinellas death sentences the Florida Supreme Court reviewed on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved non-unanimous juries. Only two of those cases garnered the 10 juror votes in favor of death that would have permitted a death verdict to be imposed under 2016 amendments to Florida law that attempted to address another constitutional flaw in the statute. The non-unanimity provisions facilitated the extremely harsh use of the death penalty by Pinellas' prosecutors against defendants with significant mental health problems. Five of these 6 death sentences were directed at defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual impairment; and one was directed as an emotionally disturbed defendant who -- at only few months past 18 years old at the time of the offense -- was barely constitutionally eligible for the death penalty. According to a report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, none of the other 15 outlier counties who have produced the most death sentences in the U.S. since 2010 imposed it so disproportionately against mentally impaired defendants. This prosecutorial overreaching occurred against a backdrop of racial bias and bad defense lawyering. In the cases mentioned above, every defense attorney presented a day or less of mitigating evidence at trial. The trial judge sentenced Richard Todd Robard to death after a 7-5 jury vote; a 6-6 vote would have spared his life. But Robard's lawyer, Richard Watts, decided not to present evidence of his client's brain damage and mental health problems because he didn't think the jury would be swayed by "brain abnormalities." Amid other evidence of racially imbalanced law enforcement practices in the county, 60% of the defendants sentenced to death since 2010 were black and 67% of the victims in cases in which the death penalty was returned were white.

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

Alabama Prepares to Execute 65-Year-Old Mentally Ill Prisoner Disabled by Several Strokes

UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed Madison's execution, ordering oral argument on his competency claim. Previously: Alabama is preparing to execute Vernon Madison (pictured) on May 12, as his lawyers continue to press their claim that the 65-year-old prisoner is incompetent to be executed. Defense lawyers say Madison, whom a trial judge sentenced to death despite the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, suffers from mental illness and has additional cognitive impairments, retrograde amnesia, and dementia as a result of strokes in May 2015 and January 2016. The strokes also have caused a significant drop in Madison's IQ, which now tests at 72, within the range the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as supporting a diagnosis of intellectual disability. In addition, the strokes have left Madison legally blind. In its 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to execute mentally incompetent prisoners, whom it defined as people who do not understand their punishment or why they are to be executed. Madison's lawyers have unsuccessfully argued in Alabama's state and federal courts that, because of his mental impairments, he is unable to understand why the state will execute him. An Alabama trial judge ruled earlier this month that Madison is competent, and the court denied his motion for a stay of execution. On May 6, he presented his competency claim to the federal district court, which denied relief on May 10. Madison's lawyers have appealed that ruling. Madison has been on death row for more than 30 years. His conviction for the murder of a white police officer has been overturned twice, once because prosecutors intentionally excluded black jurors from serving on the case and once because the prosecution presented improper testimony from an expert witness. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Madison's lawyers have sought review of his case in light of Johnson and are also seeking a stay of execution to permit him to litigate the constitutionality of the state's judicial override provisions. 

Texas Court Finds Marcus Druery Mentally Incompetent, Spares Him From Execution

A Texas court has found that a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Marcus Druery (pictured), is incompetent to be executed. Druery's attorneys presented more than 150 pages of reports from mental health professionals arguing that, as a result of major mental illness, Druery does not understand why he is being punished, making it unconstitutional to execute him. His "paranoid and grandiose delusions...deprive him of a rational understanding of the connection between his crime and punishment," one expert wrote. On April 4, the court agreed. Prosecutors did not contest Druery's claims of incompetency, but retain the right to petition for reconsideration in the future if Druery's mental state changes. Kate Black, one of Druery's attorneys, said, "The state has the duty to make certain it does not violate the Constitution by executing an individual, like Mr. Druery, who suffers from a psychotic disorder that renders him incompetent for execution. We are pleased that they have taken that duty seriously." Druery has long suffered from delusions and a psychotic disorder that doctors have consistently characterized as a form of schizophrenia. In 2009, his mental illness became so severe that he was transferred to a prison psychiatric unit. State doctors who have examined him since have consistently diagnosed him as delusional. An execution date was set for Druery in 2012, but he was granted a stay and, later, a competency hearing, which led to Monday's decision.

Texas Scheduled to Execute Severely Mentally Ill Death-Row Prisoner

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit says that “Adam Kelly Ward (pictured) has been afflicted with mental illness his entire life.” Yet Texas will execute him on March 22 unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants him a stay to review his case. Ward's lawyers argue that the execution of a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and that, for that reason, Ward should not be executed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied review of that issue on March 14, saying that Ward should have raised it in previous state-court appeals. The Texas federal courts rejected a similar argument in 2015. While the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of inmates who are so mentally incompetent that that they do not rationally comprehend that they are going to be executed or why, it has never ruled that executing inmates with severe mental illness is unconstitutional. Ward has consistently exhibited signs of severe mental illness since infancy, and was twice hospitalized for multi-week periods because of his illness. He suffered from uncontrollable rage episodes and two of his elementary schools built special padded isolation rooms in which he would be placed when he was out of control. The federal district court described him as delusional and having "difficulty with impulse control, bad judgment, poor insight, trouble sleeping and eating, mood swings, and bizarre behaviors." At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Ward's psychotic disorder caused him to "suffer paranoid delusions such that he believes there might be a conspiracy against him and that people might be after him or trying to harm him" and the federal district court agreed that as a result of his mental illness, Ward "interpreted neutral things as a threat or personal attack." In her statement concurring with the state court's denial of a stay of execution, Judge Elsa Alcala noted that no Supreme Court decision banned the execution of people with mental illness and that the power to do so rests with legislatures: "As is the case with intellectual disability, the preferred course would be for legislatures rather than courts to set standards defining the level at which a mental illness is so severe that it should result in a defendant being categorically exempt from the death penalty." 

Report: 75% of 2015 Executions Raised Serious Concerns About Mental Health or Innocence

Three quarters of American executions in 2015 involved cases of "crippling disabilities and uncertain guilt," according to a report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University. Saying that the 2015 executions revealed "a broken capital punishment system," the report found that, "[o]f the 28 people executed [in 2015], 75% were mentally impaired or disabled, experienced extreme childhood trauma or abuse, or were of questionable guilt." It said seven people who were executed suffered from serious intellectual impairment or brain injury, including Warren Hill, who even the state's doctors agreed had intellectual disability, and Cecil Clayton, who lost 20% of his prefrontal cortex as a result of a sawmill accident. An additional seven suffered from serious mental illnesses. One, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated war veteran whom the Veterans Administration had classified as 100% disabled as a result of combat-related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from his service in Vietnam. The report identified five more cases in which the executed prisoners had experienced extreme childhood trauma and abuse, and another two - Lester Bower and Brian Keith Terrell - in which it said the executed men "were potentially innocent." The report also highlighted developments described in DPIC's Year End Report, including the increasing isolation of death penalty use to a small number of jurisdictions. "Only a handful of outlier counties still impose the death penalty," the report said, and an examination of practices in those counties often "reveals themes of overzealous prosecutors who often bend the rules, poorly performing defense lawyers, and a legacy of racial bias." As a result, "these outlier counties tend to [also have] an unacceptable history of convicting the innocent and individuals with crippling mental impairments." (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC Releases Year End Report: Historic Declines in Use of Death Penalty in 2015

On December 16, DPIC released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment, "The Death Penalty in 2015: Year End Report." The death penalty declined by virtually every measure in 2015. 28 people were executed, the fewest since 1991. Death sentences dropped 33% from last year's historic low, with 49 people being sentenced to death this year. There have now been fewer death sentences imposed in the last decade than in the decade before the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty laws unconstitutional in 1972. Just six states carried out executions, the fewest since 1988; and three states (Texas, Missouri, and Georgia) accounted for 86% of all executions. For the first time since 1995, the number of people on death row fell below 3,000. Public support for the death penalty also dropped, and the 2015 American Values Survey found that a majority of Americans prefer life without parole to the death penalty as punishment for people convicted of murder. Six people were exonerated from death row this year, bringing the total number of exonerations since 1973 to 156. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC's Executive Director. See DPIC's Press ReleaseView a video summarizing the report. (Click image to enlarge.)

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