Mental Illness

5 Georgia Executions Emblematic of Systemic Problems With State's Death Penalty

Georgia is scheduled to execute Marcus Johnson (pictured) on November 19 despite ongoing concerns about his innocence. The execution would be Georgia's fifth since December 2014 - each raising serious questions about systemic problems in Georgia's application of the death penalty. In a commentary for The Marshall Project, Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, says these cases "are emblematic" of death sentences imposed before Georgia's statewide capital defense office opened in 2005 and "encapsulate what’s wrong with capital punishment in Georgia." In December 2014, Georgia executed Robert Wayne Holsey, whose drunk lawyer failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence that Holsey had an IQ of 70 and had been seriously abused as a child. The lawyer was later imprisoned and disbarred for misconduct in another case. Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam veteran with bi-polar disorder who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration as a result of combat-related PTSD, was executed in January, the first U.S. execution in 2015. The jury was never heard details of Brannan's military service or disability. Two weeks later, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with intellectual disabilities. A judge found that Hill had proven his disability by a "preponderance of the evidence," the standard of proof required by every other death penalty state, but Georgia requires defendants to prove intellectual disability "beyond a reasonable doubt." Even after the state's doctors admitted that Hill met this higher standard, the state and federal courts refused to consider this evidence on technical procedural grounds and Hill was executed. Kelly Gissendaner's execution in September hghlighted a different type of arbitrariness: she was executed for planning to murder her husband, while her boyfriend, who actually committed the killing, made a deal with prosecutors to serve a life sentence and will be eligible for parole in seven years. Finally, Marcus Johnson's case raises concerns that Georgia may be executing an innocent man. The DNA evidence from the murder scene that was tested was inconclusive, other blood evidence was not tested, and none of Johnson's DNA was found on or in the car where the victim's body was found. The trial judge wrote to the Georgia Supreme Court that the evidence in Johnson's case "does not foreclose all doubt respecting the defendant’s guilt."

NEW VOICES: Retired Generals Call for Review of Status of Military Veterans Facing Death Penalty

In an op-ed for USA Today, three retired generals call for systemic review of the status of veterans on death row nationwide and urge decision-makers in capital cases to seriously consider the mental health effects of service-related PTSD in determining whether to pursue or to impose the death penalty against military veterans. Calling DPIC's new report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty," "a wake-up call for an issue that few have focused on," Brigadiers General (Ret.) James P. Cullen, David R. Irvine, and Stephen N. Xenakis write that "[c]ountless veterans have endured violence and trauma that few others can fully imagine" but defense attorneys in capital cases "are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present" this evidence and prosecutors and judges often treat it dismissively. They say that, "at a minimum, when a judge or jury is weighing a person’s life or death, they should have full knowledge and understanding of that person’s life history. Veterans with PTSD — and, in fact, all those with serious mental illness at the time of their crime — deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field." Citing DPIC's report, the generals discuss the cases of Andrew Brannan, James Davis, and John Thuesen, who suffered from combat-related PTSD but were sentenced to death without adequate consideration of their conditions. They contrast the often untreated "deeply debilitating" long-term wounds of combat PTSD to the physical wounds for which veterans do receive treatment. "PTSD can be treated," they write, "but in one study only about half of the veterans who needed treatment received it." They conclude with a call to action. "We should begin by determining the exact scope of this problem: Who are the veterans on death row? How could their military experience have affected their commission of a crime? How well were their disabilities investigated and presented in court? And what should be done when the system fails them? Veterans facing the death penalty deserve this assistance." (Click image to enlarge.)

DPIC Releases New Report, "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty"

On November 10, on the eve of Veterans' Day, the Death Penalty Information Center released a new report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty. The report examines the plight of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death, estimating that about 300 veterans are currently on death row. Many of these veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental disabilities caused or exacerbated by their time in combat. Often when these veterans were on trial facing the death penalty, their military service and related illnesses were barely presented to the jury. The first person executed in 2015, Andrew Brannan, was a decorated Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who had been granted 100% disability by the Veterans Administration. His combat trauma was largely unexplored at trial, and the Georgia Pardons Board denied him clemency. DPIC's press release noted: "As the country prepares to honor its military veterans on November 11, it may be a sobering and surprising revelation that many veterans have been adjudged as 'the worst of the worst,' condemned to death, and executed by the government they once served." The report urges more attention be paid to veterans facing execution: "Early intervention, peer assistance from veterans, and involvement of veteran officials with prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges could all be instrumental in steering a case away from the death penalty," the report states.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Seeks Ban on Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Defendants

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton (pictured) testified in state legislative hearings on October 14 that Ohio should ban use of the death penalty against defendants who suffer from serious mental illness when they commit a capital crime. Stratton, a Republican who was appointed to the court in 1996 and served, following reelection, until 2012, called the death penalty "inefficient, ineffective and a great burden on our society." Stratton said that the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities because of their reduced culpability.  She told the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee that people with serious mental illnesses have similarly reduced culpability. "Do we as a society say we want to execute someone who has diminished capacity and mental Illness?" Stratton asked the committee. Last year, the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Death Penalty issued 56 reform recommendations, including a ban on executing those with serious mental illness. Stratton said the bill would apply to defendants diagnosed with such serious mental illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depressive and delusional disorders. The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and is also supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Conservative Commentator, Texas Editorial Urge End to Death Penalty for Mentally Ill

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments on September 23 regarding Scott Panetti's competency to be executed. Panetti is a severely mentally ill man who represented himself at his trial wearing a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. As the court prepares to hear Panetti's case, opinion pieces in two Texas newspapers used it to illustrate larger problems with the death penalty and mental illness. In an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News, conservative commentator Richard Viguerie said Panetti's execution would not be "a proportionate response to murder," but "would only undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system." He wrote that people with severe mental illness, like juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities, should not be executed because they have diminished capacities to understand the consequences of their actions. "The rationales for the death penalty — retribution and deterrence — simply do not apply to a severely mentally ill individual like Panetti, who believes that a listening device has been implanted in one of his teeth." Executing Panetti, Viguerie said, would be "a moral failure for conservatives." A Houston Chronicle editorial discussed Panetti's case and the case of another mentally ill capital defendant, James Calvert. A Texas court terminated Calvert's self-representation after, in the words of the editorial, Calvert "took to defending himself with a farcical style that likely did more to hurt than help his case." Just before the court terminated Calvert's self-representation, a court deputy administered an electric shock to Calvert, causing him to scream for several seconds. The editorial said that "[t]he ultimate punishment - death - merits our highest standards of care" and that "judges must carefully balance the Sixth Amendment's right to represent oneself with the guarantee of competent representation." Calling for the end of the death penalty, the editorial board wrote, "Cases like Calvert and Panetti's show how something as serious as life and death can easily be turned into a farce." 

Federal Judge: Delaware Execution "Highlights Profound Failings in Our Judicial Process"

U.S. District Court Judge Gregory M. Sleet has criticized the lack of judicial review provided by the state and federal courts prior to Delaware's 2012 execution of Shannon Johnson, saying Johnson's execution "highlights profound failings in our judicial process." In an article in the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice magazine, Judge Sleet - who was Chief Judge at the time of the case - called "[t]he Johnson case, and its result, ... by far the most troubling I have encountered." Johnson confessed to the crime and sought execution by waiving his appeals. Johnson's state court lawyer then advocated in support of his wish to be executed and opposed efforts by lawyers for Johnson's relatives to obtain review of his mental state. Questions about Johnson's mental competence and the state's process for determining competence were never reviewed by any court. Sleet stayed the execution twice, expressing concerns about flaws in the state competency proceedings, but the stays were lifted by the federal Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. "[T]he case was and remains disturbing to me because, in the unnecessary haste to execute Johnson before his execution certificate expired — a haste arguably exacerbated by the State and the Third Circuit – I believe that the judiciary's fundamental role of ensuring due process, as realized through an adversarial process, was sacrificed or, at the very least, undermined," Sleet wrote. Sleet argued that Johnson's case illustrates larger problems in the death penalty system. "[I]f one of the goals of our adversarial process is, as I believe it to be, to 'preserve the integrity of society itself,' we must face the fact that, in so far as the administration of the death penalty is concerned, the process is broken," he said.

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.