Mental Illness

NEW STATEMENTS: The Death Penalty Is Incompatible with Human Dignity

On July 19 Prof. Charles Ogletree of Harvard University Law School wrote in the Washington Post about the future of the death penalty in the U.S. Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed (Hall v. Florida) that executing defendants with intellectual disabilities serves “no legitimate penological purpose,” Prof. Ogletree said this reasoning could be applied to the whole death penalty: "The overwhelming majority of those facing execution today have what the court termed in Hall to be diminished culpability. Severe functional deficits are the rule, not the exception, among the individuals who populate the nation’s death rows." He cited a study published in the Hastings Law Journal that found that "the social histories of 100 people executed during 2012 and 2013 showed that the vast majority of executed offenders suffered from one or more significant cognitive and behavioral deficits," such as mental illness, youthful brain development, or abuse during childhood. He concluded that when you examine capital punishment more closely, "what you find is that the practice of the death penalty and the commitment to human dignity are not compatible." Read the op-ed below.

Federal Judge Stays Imminent Execution Over Mental Competency Concerns

UPDATE: Middleton was executed on July 16, after the U.S. Court of Appeals lifted his stay. On July 15, a federal judge in Missouri stayed the execution of John Middleton, less than 24 hours before it was to occur. The judge was concerned that Middleton might be mentally incompetent, and hence ineligible for execution: "Middleton has provided evidence that he has been diagnosed with a variety of mental-health disorders and has received a number of psychiatric medications over the years," Judge Catherine Perry wrote in her order staying the execution. "[Other] inmates indicate that he frequently talks to people who are not there and tells stories that could not have had any basis in reality." Middleton's attorneys have also introduced new evidence to support his claim of innocence. An expert witness who supported the prosecution's case at trial has now said the murder most likely took place when Middleton was in jail in another state. Kay Parish, an attorney for Middleton, said, "Part of the reason we don't execute people with mental deficits is that they have more difficulty navigating the system. And I think that's very true in this case, and I think that's why he had trouble in the past in getting lawyers or anyone to listen to his claim of innocence or look at this evidence."

ARBITRARINESS: Almost All Recently Executed Inmates Possessed Qualities Similar to Those Spared

Some defendants who commit murder are automatically excluded from the death penalty in the U.S., such as juveniles and the intellectually disabled. Others with similar deficits are regularly executed. A new study by Robert Smith (l.), Sophie Cull, and Zoe Robinson examined the mitigating evidence present in 100 recent cases resulting in execution, testing whether the offenders possessed qualities similar to those spared from execution. The authors found that "Nearly nine of every ten executed offenders possessed an intellectual impairment, had not yet reached their twenty-first birthday, suffered from a severe mental illness, or endured marked childhood trauma." In particular, "One-third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning, or traumatic brain injury;" "More than one-third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five—the age at which the brain fully matures;" and "Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness."

California Building Psychiatric Hospital on Death Row

California announced plans to add a 40-bed psychatric hospital to its death row at San Quentin to treat deeply disturbed inmates in need of 24-hour care for mental illness. In 2013 a federal judge ordered the state to provide death-row inmates access to inpatient psychiatric treatment. Following court-ordered mental evaluations, the state identified 37 men with severe mental illnesses requiring full-time care. Attorney Michael Bien, who argued the case that prompted the action, said, "The reality is these guys are going to live in this place for a long time, and you need to see they get the care they need." California has the largest death row in the country (741 inmates) and has not had an execution since 2006 because of problems with its lethal injection protocol. Suicide among death row inmates was one of the reasons for the court review.

Ohio Commission to Release Recommendations for Death Penalty Reform

In 2011, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court appointed a blue-ribbon Commission to review the state's death penalty and to make recommendations for reform. On April 10, the Commission prepared to announce 56 recommendations for changing the death penalty, including:

► Require higher standards for proving guilt if a death sentence is sought (such as DNA evidence)
► Bar the death penalty for those who suffer from “serious mental illness”
► Lessen the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty
► Create a Death Penalty Charging Committee at the Attorney General’s Office to approve capital prosecutions
► Adopt a Racial Justice Act to facilitate inequality claims in Ohio courts.

See all 56 proposed recommendations from the Task Force.

STUDIES: How Often Are Death Row Inmates Spared Because of Insanity?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of inmates who were insane. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger warned that the majority decision "offers an invitation to those who have nothing to lose...to advance entirely spurious claims of insanity." A new study has examined cases since 1986 in which death row inmates filed claims of mental incompetence and found that the deluge of spurious claims has not materialized. Of the 1,307 people the study considered "Ford-eligible," that is, those whose cases reached the point at which a Ford claim could be filed, only 6.6% (86) filed claims of incompetency. Of the cases decided on the merits, 22% of the Ford claims were successful, a high success rate when compared to other post-conviction claims in capital cases, implying non-frivolous claims were being filed. A large majority (62.6%) of inmates whose claims of insanity were decided in court had a well-documented history of mental illness, showing that raising an insanity claim was legitimate, even in many of the unsuccessful cases.

EDITORIALS: Mississippi Paper Calls Pending Execution "Gravely Inhumane"

A recent editorial in the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi called for a halt to the scheduled execution of Michelle Byrom, saying she is "clearly not guilty of the crime for which the state plans to execute her next week." The editorial noted that Byrom's son had confessed to the crime four times." He said the story he originally told sheriffs implicating his mother was made up because he was "scared, confused and high" when he was interrogated. The paper pointed to mitigating evidence about Byrom that could have been considered by a sentencing jury: "Byrom suffered a lifetime of abuse that had a jury heard about it could have been sufficiently mitigating for her to receive life imprisonment rather than death for the capital offense of murder-for-hire." The editors concluded: "It would be gravely inhumane to execute a woman as mentally and physically ill as Michelle Byrom—and a frightening contrast to all the brutal woman-killers that previous Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned....To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history. This execution must not happen." Read the full editorial below.

Doubts of Culpability Surround Upcoming Execution in Mississippi

Michelle Byrom is scheduled to be executed in Mississippi on March 27 for conspiring to murder her husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. Her son, Edward Byrom, Jr., known as Junior, confessed to the crime on multiple occasions, and wrote that he lied when he told police his mother and a friend were involved. "I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned in to this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories," he wrote. Junior testified against his mother in exchange for a reduced sentence and is now out of prison. Michelle Byrom was abused by her stepfather, ran away from home at age 15, and moved in with Edward, Sr., that same year, when he was 31. He verbally and physically abused her and threatened violence if she tried to leave. A forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Michelle with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcoholism, and Münchausen syndrome, saying the disorders were consistent with abuse. She was interrogated while in the hospital under the influence of 12 different medications, and only confessed when the Sheriff told her about her son's confession and encouraged her not to let her son "take the rap." Her trial attorneys, trying their first capital case, waived her right to have a jury decide her sentence, believing that would give them grounds for an appeal. They did not present evidence of her mental illnesses, thinking that evidence would be better saved for the appeal. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence (5-3), with Justice Jess Dickinson writing in dissent, "I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot." UPDATE: Read Andrew Cohen's piece about this case The Atlantic.

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