Mental Illness

POLL: Americans Oppose Death Penalty for Mentally Ill by 2-1

A new poll found that Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by more than a 2-1 margin. According to Public Policy Polling, 58% of respondents opposed capital punishment for people with mental illness, while only 28% supported it. Professor Robert Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina who commissioned the poll, said, "Today's important polling is part of significant new research which clearly shows an emerging consensus against using capital punishment in cases where the defendant is mentally ill. ... Combining this public polling, sentencing practices, and the recommendations of the mental health medical community, it's clear that a consensus is emerging against the execution of a person like Scott Panetti, who suffers from a debilitating (mental) illness ...." Opposition to the execution of people with mental illness was strong across lines of race, gender, geographic region, political affiliation, and education. Democrats (62%), Republicans (59%) and Independents (51%) all opposed the practice. The results echo the growing number of prominent leaders speaking out against the execution of Panetti in Texas, scheduled for December 3.

NEW VOICES: Texas Appellate Judge Denounces Death Penalty and Upcoming Execution

On Nov. 26, Judge Tom Price dissented from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' denial of relief for Scott Panetti:
"Having spent the last forty years as a judge for the State of Texas, of which the last eighteen years have been as a judge on this Court, I have given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished. I, therefore, respectfully dissent from the Court's order denying the motion for stay of execution and dismissing the subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by Scott Louis Panetti, applicant. I would grant applicant's motion for a stay of execution and would hold that his severe mental illness renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution."

Growing Opposition to Execution of Severely Mentally Ill Inmate in Texas

Commentary on Scott Panetti's scheduled execution on December 3 in Texas:

"By any reasonable standard — not to mention the findings of multiple mental-health experts over the years — Mr. Panetti is mentally incompetent...A civilized society should not be in the business of executing anybody. But it certainly cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability if it kills someone like Scott Panetti."
-N.Y. Times, Nov. 23, 2014

"In a 1986 decision, the Supreme Court said that executing the insane served no purpose and would be 'savage and inhumane.' Today, no words could better describe the state’s plans to strap Panetti to a gurney and end his tortured life."
-Dallas Morning News, Nov. 23, 2014

"[W]e believe that executing a person as severely and persistently ill as Scott Panetti would only compound the original tragedy, represent a profound injustice, and serve no useful retributive or preventive purpose."
-National Alliance on Mental Illness, Nov. 17, 2014

"The European Union strongly believes that the execution of persons suffering from a mental disorder is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and is in contradiction to the minimum standards of human rights set forth in several international human rights instruments, as well as being prohibited by the US Constitution."
-European Union, Nov. 14, 2014

NEW VOICES: Mental Health and Law Enforcement Leaders Urge Clemency for Texas Inmate

Panetti
(Click to enlarge). On November 12, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, 30 former judges, prosecutors, and Attorneys General, 50 evangelical faith leaders, and the American Bar Association joined many others in calling on Texas Governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence of death row inmate Scott Panetti because of his severe mental illness. Despite his long history of hospitalization in mental institutions, Panetti is scheduled to be executed on December 3. Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic who represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena over 200 people, including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope. A letter of support signed by 30 law enforcement officials said, "We come together from across the partisan and ideological divide and are united in our belief that, irrespective of whether we support or oppose the death penalty, this is not an appropriate case for execution." Fifty evangelical Christian leaders signed a letter saying, “The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings.”

Texas Sets December Execution for Delusional Inmate

Texas has set an execution date of December 3, 2014 for Scott Panetti, a death row inmate with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Panetti represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy outfit, and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and the pope, among many others. Inmates who are ruled insane are ineligible for execution, but Texas officials argue Panetti can be put to death because he sees some connection between his crime and his execution. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Panetti's execution and determined that Texas had not considered Panetti's long history of mental illness in evaluating his competency, sending the case back for further review. The lower courts again found Panetti competent, and in October the Court denied a request for reconsideration of Panetti's case. Greg Wiercioch, one of Panetti’s attorneys, remarked, “Scott Panetti is not competent for execution and therefore his execution would serve no retributive purpose. It is unfortunate that an execution date has been set. His execution would be a miserable spectacle.” Prominent national mental health experts have called for a halt to the execution. Texas has recently been setting execution dates in 2015, but Panetti's date was pushed ahead of others.

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.  

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