Mental Illness

International Community to Focus on Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

On October 10 many international organizations and countries are focusing on the use of the death penalty around the world. The emphasis this year is on mental health issues related to capital punishment, with groups advocating for a ban on the execution of individuals with serious mental illness or intellectual disabilities. People with intellectual disabilities are vulnerable to manipulation during interrogation and have difficulty assisting in their own defense. Mental health problems can be exacerbated by the extreme isolation on death row. Recently, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a publication, "Moving Away from the Death Penalty: Arguments, Trends, and Perspectives," which also discussed international issues related to the death penalty. In a preface to the publication, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "The death penalty has no place in the 21st century. Leaders across the globe must boldly step forward in favour of abolition. I recommend this book in particular to those States that have yet to abolish the death penalty. Together, let us end this cruel and inhumane practice."

Supreme Court Begins New Term with at Least One Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its 2014-15 term on October 6. One of the cases the Court will hear during its first month is Jennings v. Stephens, a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel and whether a separate appeal is necessary for each such claim. Oral arguments will take place on October 15. The Court has been asked to review an appeal from Scott Panetti, another death row inmate from Texas, who may be mentally incompetent. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Florida's strict IQ cutoff for determining intellectual disability. In that case, Hall v. Florida, the Court concluded that "Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world."

Supreme Court Again Asked to Consider Competence to be Executed in Texas Case

Scott Panetti is a death row inmate in Texas, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and believes he is at the center of a struggle between God and Satan. The state has continued to insist he is competent to be executed. Panetti represented himself at his trial, appearing in court wearing a cowboy outfit and making bizarre, rambling statements. He attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope, and 200 others. He was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court granted Panetti a rehearing on his claim of incompetence, saying that the state's definition of insanity was too restrictive. The state has maintained that because Panetti acknowledges he is being executed for the murder of his in-laws, he is sane enough to be executed. Pointing to the testimony of psychiatric experts, his lawyers have argued the state's simple cause-and-effect criterion is insufficient to establish sanity, especially considering that Panetti views his crime through a lens of delusion. They have asked the Supreme Court to again consider the case, arguing that the state's definition is still overly restrictive and ignores the complete picture presented by Panetti's history of serious 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.

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