Mental Illness

Former Tennessee Attorney General Supports Mental Illness Exemption

In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody (pictured) has expressed his support for a bill that would exempt people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Cody, who later served as a member of the American Bar Association's Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Team, said that "as society's understanding of mental illness improves every day," it is "surprising that people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, can still be subject to the death penalty in Tennessee." In his op-ed, Cody describes how cases with seriously mentally ill defendants differ from other capital cases: "In 2007, an ABA study committee, of which I was a member, conducted a comprehensive assessment of Tennessee’s death penalty laws and found that 'mental illness can affect every stage of a capital trial' and that 'when the judge, prosecutor and jurors are misinformed about the nature of mental illness and its relevance to the defendant’s culpability, tragic consequences often follow for the defendant.'" He also draws on his experience as the state's top prosecutor, saying, "As a former Tennessee Attorney General, I understand how horrific these crimes are and how seriously we must take capital cases. ...But in light of our increased understanding of mental illness, I believe that for those with documented mental illness of the most severe form at the time of their crime, the maximum punishment should be life in prison without parole." Tennessee is one of at least seven states in which legislators have introduced bills that would exempt those with severe mental illness from the death penalty. Numerous legal and mental health organizations, including the American Bar Association, American Psychiatric Association, and National Alliance on Mental Illness, support excluding defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.

At Least Seven States Introduce Legislation Banning Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Bills to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from facing the death penalty are expected in at least seven states in 2017. Legislators in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia have either introduced such legislation or announced that they plan to. Six of the seven states have sponsorship from Republican legislators, indicating bipartisan support for the measures. The author of Indiana's bill, Sen. James Merritt (pictured, R-Indianapolis), says he supports the death penalty but draws a “bright line of distinction” around executing people with severe mental illness. There are some variations in the bills, but each creates a process in which a determination is made—usually by a judge—whether the defendant qualifies for the exemption. Some bills define serious mental illness by particular diagnoses, others by behavioral impairments in functioning. Qualifying diagnoses under the exemption typically included Schizophrenia and Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Traumatic Brain Injury. Defendants found to be suffering from severe mental illness would not be exempted from criminal responsibility, but would be subject to a maximum sentence of life without parole. Numerous mental health organizations have called for an exemption to the death penalty for individuals with severe mental illness. The measures have the support of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), and state-level coalitions of mental health advocates. In December 2016, the American Bar Association held a national summit and issued a white paper in support of a severe mental illness exemption. Several religious leaders also have spoken out in favor of the exemption. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, wrote an op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot in late January saying, "Their conditions affect many aspects of the legal process, impacting their appearance in court, the jury’s perception of ticks or socially inappropriate interactions, the defendant’s presentation of facts, and even their own admission of guilt. Indeed, studies have shown that defendants with severe mental illness are more likely to give a false confession. ...As a faith leader, I am compelled to advocate for compassionate and fair laws such as this." Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, called the bill "prudent and just."

Mental Health Professionals, Religious Leaders Join Ricky Gray's Plea for Clemency

Ricky Gray (pictured), who is scheduled to be executed on January 18, is seeking clemency from Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, and his clemency petition has been joined by a diverse group of mental health professionals and the Virginia Catholic Conference. A letter signed by more than 50 mental health professionals, including two former commissioners of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, urges McAuliffe to commute Gray's sentence because of Gray's history of "horrific" childhood abuse and his addiction at the time of the crime. Gray's jury never heard evidence that he was raped and sodomized almost daily from the ages of four to eleven, and that he turned to drugs as early as age 12 to numb the resulting trauma. At the time of his crime, he was under the influence of PCP. “In Mr. Gray’s case, his abuse and trauma were left unaddressed and predictably led to profound despair and other serious trauma symptoms, drug addiction, and the drug use that resulted in the tragic crimes he committed with Ray Dandridge,” the letter states. Gray's lawyers seek to have Gray's sentence commuted to life—the same sentence that Dandridge received. Gray's clemency petition includes reports from mental health experts who say that the extreme childhood trauma Gray endured altered his brain development, making him particularly susceptible to the effects of drugs. Gray has apologized for his involvement in the crimes, saying, "Remorse is not a deep enough word for how I feel. I know my words can’t bring anything back, but I continuously feel horrible for the circumstances that I put them through. ...There’s nothing I can do to make up for that. It’s never left my mind, because I understand exactly what I took from the world by looking at my two sisters. I’m reminded each time I talk and see them that this is what I took from the world." Governors in other states have granted clemency in some cases with similar circumstances. In September 2011, Ohio Governor John Kasich commuted the death sentence imposed on Joseph Murphy, citing Murphy's "brutally abusive upbringing." In January 2012, Delaware Governor Jack Markell commuted Robert Gattis' death sentence based on evidence of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by family members. Both are now serving life sentences. Gray is also seeking a stay of execution from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as he challenges the constitutionality of Virginia's proposed lethal injection protocol. UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied Gray's request for a stay on January 13.

REPORT: 5 Florida Counties Disproportionately Impose Death Penalty Against Seriously Mentally Impaired Defendants

Nearly two-thirds of death row prisoners in five Florida counties whose cases were studied by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project suffer from serious mental impairments. According to a report released by the project on January 12, 2017, the Florida Supreme Court's December 2016 ruling in Mosley v. State requires reconsideration of the sentences imposed on approximately 150 people on Florida's death row who were sentenced to death after the U.S. Supreme Court decided RIng v. Arizona in 2002. Based on Ring, Florida's death sentencing procedures were later ruled unconstitutional. Nearly one-third of the death sentences in question were imposed in just five Florida counties: Duval, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Orange, and Pinellas. The Fair Punishment Project report examines the 48 death sentences from those counties that involved non-unanimous jury recommendations of sentence or waivers of jury sentencing proceedings, and finds that in 63% of those cases, the defendants "exhibit signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." Those impairments, the report argues, makes the death penalty disproportionate for those defendants. Defendants in more than a third of the cases (35%) had low IQ scores or traumatic brain injury that left them with deficits similar to people with intellectual disability, whose diminished culpability makes them constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty. Approximately 1/5th of the 48 defendants presented symptoms or diagnoses of severe mental mental illness; approximately 23% had experienced severe childhood or emotional trauma; and 6 were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. More than a quarter—such as Victor Caraballo, who was sentenced to death in Miami-Dade County despite an "extensive history of mental illness," as well as serious trauma stemming from "child abuse, incest, and neglect"—had overlapping impairments from multiple categories. The report concludes, "These findings have raised a legitimate question as to whether Florida’s capital punishment scheme–even one with a unanimous jury requirement– is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders."

REPORT: Two-Thirds of Oregon's Death Row Have Mental Impairments, History of Severe Trauma, or Were Under 21 at Offense

Most of the prisoners on Oregon's death row suffer from significant mental impairments, according a study released on December 20, 2016 by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University. The Project's analysis of case records, media reports, and opinions of Oregon legal experts found that two-thirds of the 35 people on the state's death row "possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." The report argues that these characteristics make the prisoners less culpable than the average offender. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the severity of the crime, imposition of the death penalty upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults, would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her 'inherent dignity as a human being,'" the report says, drawing parallels between those classes and the prisoners included in the report. The study found that 9 of the 35 death row prisoners (26%) "presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome"; approximately one in four exhibited symptoms of mental illness, or had a confirmed mental health diagnosis; one-third suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma of the sort known to affect brain development; and six (17%) were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In one case, an Oregon death row prisoner was granted a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled after evidence showed he has a psychotic disorder, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, visible brain defects in his corpus callosum, a low IQ, and deficits in adaptive behavior that left him functioning at the level of a seven-and-a-half-year old child. His co-defendant, a childhood friend who admitted that he had exerted pressure on the first defendant to participate in the crime, was given a life sentence. The report concludes, "These findings raise a legitimate question as to whether Oregon’s capital punishment scheme is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders." Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and has executed just two people in 40 years.

American Bar Association Issues White Paper Supporting Death Penalty Exemption for Severe Mental Illness

At a December 6-7 national summit on severe mental illness and the death penalty, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released a new white paper that it hopes will provide law makers with information and policy analysis to "help states pass laws that will establish clear standards and processes to prevent the execution of those with severe mental illness." The ABA does not take a position on the death penalty itself, but believes that "[i]ndividuals with severe mental disorders or disabilities ... should not be subject to capital punishment." The white paper describes the range of problems faced by seriously mentally ill defendants in capital cases and sets forth possible legislative approaches for exempting them from capital sanctions. The white paper, and ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass in her address to the summit, likened the diminished moral culpability of the severely mentally ill to that of two other "vulnerable groups"—juvenile offenders and defendants with intellectual disabilities—whom the court has exempted from the death penalty.  The application of the death penalty to these defendants, she said, "has been deemed unconstitutional because our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the 'worst of the worst' murderers for whom the death penalty is intended. They are less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their own defense and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These exact characteristics apply to individuals with severe mental illness." Citing national polls in 2014 and 2015, Bass said the American public "support[s] a severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty by a 2 to 1 majority." At least 8 state legislatures are expected to consider serious mental illness exemptions in 2017. Among those states is Virginia, where just this year, a jury disregarded prosecution and defense experts in the death penalty trial of Russell Brown and found him guilty despite testimony that he was insane and did not understand the nature or consequences of his actions. The jury ultimately sentenced Brown to life in prison, but, as University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett explained, "there was no statutory protection available against the highest punishment for a man who, by the admission of all experts, did not have the highest culpability." As does the ABA, Professor Garrett argues that a serious mental illness exemption is a safeguard that is necessary to reduce unfairness in the administration of capital punishment. "If lawmakers believe that we should retain the death penalty in Virginia," he wrote, "we must be confident that we are not sentencing to death severely mentally ill people who cannot be fully blamed for their actions." 

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Highlight Systemic Flaws in Pinellas County, Florida Death Penalty

Pinellas County, Florida ranks among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death rows across the United States and among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions conducted in this country since 1977. The five death sentences imposed in Pinellas between 2010 and 2015 also place it, along with three other Florida counties, among the 16 U.S. counties with the highest number of new death sentences in the country. One major reason for Pinellas' status is the high number of death sentences it has imposed after juries returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations, an outlier practice that the Florida Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. All six of the Pinellas death sentences the Florida Supreme Court reviewed on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved non-unanimous juries. Only two of those cases garnered the 10 juror votes in favor of death that would have permitted a death verdict to be imposed under 2016 amendments to Florida law that attempted to address another constitutional flaw in the statute. The non-unanimity provisions facilitated the extremely harsh use of the death penalty by Pinellas' prosecutors against defendants with significant mental health problems. Five of these 6 death sentences were directed at defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual impairment; and one was directed as an emotionally disturbed defendant who -- at only few months past 18 years old at the time of the offense -- was barely constitutionally eligible for the death penalty. According to a report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, none of the other 15 outlier counties who have produced the most death sentences in the U.S. since 2010 imposed it so disproportionately against mentally impaired defendants. This prosecutorial overreaching occurred against a backdrop of racial bias and bad defense lawyering. In the cases mentioned above, every defense attorney presented a day or less of mitigating evidence at trial. The trial judge sentenced Richard Todd Robard to death after a 7-5 jury vote; a 6-6 vote would have spared his life. But Robard's lawyer, Richard Watts, decided not to present evidence of his client's brain damage and mental health problems because he didn't think the jury would be swayed by "brain abnormalities." Amid other evidence of racially imbalanced law enforcement practices in the county, 60% of the defendants sentenced to death since 2010 were black and 67% of the victims in cases in which the death penalty was returned were white.

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

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