Mental Illness

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.)

January's Executions Underscore Core Death Penalty Problems

Even as executions have declined in the U.S., those being carried out often illustrate serious problems that have plagued the death penalty for many years. Of the six executions January, two (in Florida and Oklahoma) involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Warren Hill, an inmate who was found intellectually disabled by state doctors, but who failed to meet the state's highly unusual standard of proving his disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Texas executed Robert Ladd, an inmate with an IQ of 67. Texas courts have devised their own largely unscientific criteria for determining intellectual disabilty. That leaves Arnold Prieto, also executed in Texas. He was offered a plea bargain and probably would have been spared if he had testified against his co-defendants. Of those involved in the brutal crime, only Prieto received the death penalty.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Vietnam Veteran with PTSD Seeks Clemency

UPDATE: Brannan was denied clemency by Georgia on Jan.12. Andrew Brannan, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, is scheduled to be executed in Georgia on January 13. His execution would be the first of 2015. Brannan's attorneys are asking the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency because Brannan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. A police video from the crime scene illustrated Brannan's erratic behavior. Joe Loveland, one of Brannan's attorneys, said, "There was a direct connection between his service in Vietnam and the violence that he was exposed to there and the ultimate events that occurred here. The basic question really is, should a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran with no prior criminal record and who was 100 percent disabled under the DA standards, both with PTSD and bipolar disorder, at the time of the murder of the deputy sheriff--should that person be executed?"

MENTAL ILLNESS: Parents of Accused Colorado Shooter Plead for Mercy

The parents of James Holmes recently explained that their son is severely mentally ill and asked he be spared the death penalty. Holmes is accused of killing numerous people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Robert and Arlene Holmes said they were aware of the great harm their son caused, noting, "We are always praying for everyone in Aurora. We wish that July 20, 2012, never happened." They also recognized the sentiments among some that their son be executed: "We have read postings on the Internet that have likened him to a monster. He is not a monster. He is a human being gripped by a severe mental illness." They hoped he would either be allowed to plead guilty and receive a life without parole sentence, or be found not guilty by reason of insanity, so "he could go to an institution that provides treatment for the mentally ill for the remainder of his life."

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