Mental Illness

Childhood Trauma Prevalent Among Death Row Inmates

A majority of Texas death row prisoners who voluntarily responded to a recent survey by the Texas Observer reported having experienced abuse or other trauma as children. The survey results are consistent with the findings of academic studies that have repeatedly documented high rates of childhood abuse among those sentenced to death. The Texas Observer survey found that 22 of the 41 death row prisoners who responded (54%) volunteered having experienced "violent or abusive" childhoods. An additional nine death row prisoners (22%) described their childhoods as having been “hard,” typically citing impoverished conditions and high-crime neighborhoods. Psychiatric research shows that childhood trauma affects developing brains in lasting ways. "The Cycle of Violence," published by the American Psychological Association, found 94% of the 43 inmates studied had been physically abused, 59% sexually abused, and 83% had witnessed violence in adolescence. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” a 2013 study published in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, compared a group of 151 offenders with a sample of the general population, finding that "the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group." Drs. Mark Cunningham and Mark Vigen, who reviewed the findings of seven clinical studies of death row prisoners for the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law reported that the pathological family interactions experienced by capital murderers are consistent with an extensive body of research lnking the experience of abuse and neglect to later violence. Psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, founder and chairman emeritus of the Dart Center and a pioneer in the study of trauma, said that while "not all criminality is the product of childhood abuse[,] ... these early adverse situations reduce the resilience of human biology and they change us in very fundamental ways. Our brains are altered. And that’s what this research is bearing out.”

Missouri Execution Clouded by Concerns About Mental Illness and Lethal Injection

On June 9, Richard Strong was executed in Missouri, despite the fact that four Justices of the Supreme Court would have granted him a stay and despite evidence that he suffered from severe mental illness. A broad challenge to Missouri's secretive lethal injection process (Zink v. Lombardi) has yet to be resolved, and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan voted to stay Strong's execution because of that challenge. However, five votes are needed to stay an execution. In addition, Strong's original trial counsel failed to adequately explore his mental illness and the mental problems in his family. After a fuller investigation, Strong was diagnosed with major Axis I illnesses, including: Major Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Schizotypal Personality Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Strong's counsel asked the Supreme Court to spare his life because society's standards of decency have turned away from executing people with such severe mental problems. Strong was convicted of murdering his wife and two-year-old daughter in a brutal manner. He acknowledged the crime but could not understand why he did it. Another child was left untouched. Now 14 years old, she pleaded for mercy for her father. Gov. Jay Nixon denied clemency.

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down Mentally Ill Defendant's Death Sentence as Disproportionate

In a case spotlighting issues of mental illness and the death penalty, the Florida Supreme Court on April 23 unanimously overturned the death sentence imposed on a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Humberto Delgado (pictured). Delgado, who was convicted of killing a Tampa police officer, will be resentenced to life without parole. The court said, "We do not downplay the fact that Corporal Roberts lost his life as a result of Delgado's actions. However … we are compelled to reduce Delgado's sentence to life imprisonment because death is not a proportionate penalty when compared to other cases." Delgado had a history of delusions and psychotic behavior before the crime, including believing that police were out to kill him and that people were following him and sitting in trees outside his home. Delgado's attorneys pointed out that, because Delgado shot the police officer only after the officer had used a Taser, there was a lack of premeditation. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor released a statement in response to the decision, saying, "We respect the justice system and those who have to make tough decisions. Regardless of the conclusion, it doesn't bring Mike back and it doesn't relieve the pain that his wife, son and his TPD family feel. His life sentence will still ensure he is held accountable for his actions." 

States Struggle with Determinations of Competency to Be Executed

A recent article in Mother Jones examines lingering questions in the determination of which inmates are exempt from execution because of mental incompetency. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that a person could not be executed if he or she was "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it." The 2007 ruling in Panetti v. Quarterman updated that decision, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Scott Panetti (pictured), the inmate involved in the 2007 case, knew that the state of Texas planned to execute him for the murder of his in-laws, but also sincerely believed that he was at the center of a struggle between God and Satan and was being executed to stop him from preaching the Gospel. Even after the case with his name was decided, Panetti remained on death row, and the Texas courts found him competent to be executed based upon the testimony of a single psychiatrist who claimed Panetti was faking his mental illness. Panetti came within hours of execution on December 3, 2014, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit issued a stay. In Missouri, Cecil Clayton -- a brain-damaged man with an IQ of 71 -- was executed on March 17, 2015 without a hearing to determine his competency. By contrast, a recent mental competency hearing for Indiana inmate Michael Overstreet included four days of testimony from 13 witnesses and nearly 1,300 pages of medical records. In a 137-page opinion, the state judge concluded, "Delusions or other psychotic symptoms cannot simply be discounted because a petitioner has a cognitive awareness of his circumstances." Indiana's Attorney General said that the decision adhered so well to the Panetti ruling that there was nothing for the state to appeal.

UPCOMING EXECUTIONS: Elderly Man With Low IQ and Brain Damage Facing Imminent Execution

UPDATE: An image of Cecil Clayton's brain obtained via MRI can be viewed here. The image shows the front left part of his brain is physically missing. Cecil Clayton is 74, suffers from dementia, has an IQ of 71, is missing a significant part of his brain due to an accident, and is scheduled for execution on March 17 in Missouri. His attorneys insist he should be spared because he does not understand the punishment to be carried out. Clayton sustained a brain injury in a sawmill accident in 1972, requiring removal of about 20% of his frontal lobe, which is involved in impulse control, problem solving, and social behavior. After the accident, Clayton began experiencing violent impulses, schizophrenia, and extreme paranoia, which became so severe that he checked himself into a mental hospital out of fear he could not control his temper. In 1983, Dr. Douglas Stevens, a psychiatrist, examined Clayton and concluded, “There is presently no way that this man could be expected to function in the world of work. Were he pushed to do so he would become a danger both to himself and to others. He has had both suicidal and homicidal impulses, so far controlled, though under pressure they would be expected to exacerbate.” In the past decade, six psychiatric evaluations have found that Clayton should be exempt from execution because he does not understand that he will be executed, or the reasons for his execution. However, since his execution date has been set, he has not had a competency hearing before a judge that could spare him from execution.

PUBLIC OPINION: American Ambivalence on the Death Penalty

A new Rasmussen poll found that 57% of American adults support the death penalty, down from 63% in the organization's polls dating from 2009. The poll found 26% of respondents opposed the death penalty, with 17% undecided. Respondents were also asked whether they favored the death penalty for James Holmes if he is convicted of the mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Just 55% said they believed Holmes should be sentenced to death, compared to 66% who held that view immediately after the shooting in 2012. Twenty percent were undecided. Rasmussen found that Americans were less supportive of executing a defendant who is mentally ill, an issue in Holmes's case. Respondents also had concerns about wrongful convictions, and were split on whether the death penalty deterred crime.

NEW VOICES: Conservative Leaders Seek Reprieve for Severely Mentally Ill Inmate

A group of conservative leaders has joined in an effort to save the life of Scott Panetti, a Texas death row inmate with a history of severe mental illness. Members include several law enforcement officials and notable conservatives, such as Mark Earley--former Attorney General of Virginia, Harold Stratten--former Attorney General of New Mexico, David Keene--the Washington Times opinion editor, James Miller III--director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan; and Richard Viguerie--chairman of ConservativeHQ.com. The group filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, stating, "Even for those who favor a measured and just system of capital punishment, the execution of Panetti would be a moral scandal that would only undermine confidence in such a system." Panetti's attorneys say that he is mentally incompetent and therefore ineligible for execution. Panetti, who represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy suit and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy and the pope, has not had his mental competency evaluated in seven years, and his attorneys say his condition has worsened. The conservatives' brief concluded, "Panetti should be given the time and resources he seeks, and the case should be remanded so that he can prepare a petition for writ of habeas corpus raising a claim that he is incompetent to be executed."

COSTS: Pre-Trial Expenses Exceed $5 Million in Aurora Death Penatly Case

“Counties"(Click to enlarge)Trial preparations in the death penalty prosecution of James Holmes in Colorado have already cost the state about $5.5 million, and the trial and likely appeals will add significantly more. Holmes is accused of the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora. Most of the costs - $4.5 million - have come from the salaries of personnel working on the case, including the prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge, investigators, and victims' advocates. Additional court security for hearings in the case has cost $463,000. Experts hired by the prosecution have been paid $220,000, and the defense team has likely spent a similar amount. Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He offered to waive his right to a trial in exchange for receiving a sentence of life without parole. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper called off a recently scheduled execution, describing the death penalty system as flawed and inequitable, essentially putting all executions on hold. (Image by Yahoo News, click image to enlarge.)

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