Mental Illness

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.

STUDIES: How Often Are Death Row Inmates Spared Because of Insanity?

In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of inmates who were insane. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rehnquist and Chief Justice Burger warned that the majority decision "offers an invitation to those who have nothing to lose...to advance entirely spurious claims of insanity." A new study has examined cases since 1986 in which death row inmates filed claims of mental incompetence and found that the deluge of spurious claims has not materialized. Of the 1,307 people the study considered "Ford-eligible," that is, those whose cases reached the point at which a Ford claim could be filed, only 6.6% (86) filed claims of incompetency. Of the cases decided on the merits, 22% of the Ford claims were successful, a high success rate when compared to other post-conviction claims in capital cases, implying non-frivolous claims were being filed. A large majority (62.6%) of inmates whose claims of insanity were decided in court had a well-documented history of mental illness, showing that raising an insanity claim was legitimate, even in many of the unsuccessful cases.

EDITORIALS: Mississippi Paper Calls Pending Execution "Gravely Inhumane"

A recent editorial in the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi called for a halt to the scheduled execution of Michelle Byrom, saying she is "clearly not guilty of the crime for which the state plans to execute her next week." The editorial noted that Byrom's son had confessed to the crime four times." He said the story he originally told sheriffs implicating his mother was made up because he was "scared, confused and high" when he was interrogated. The paper pointed to mitigating evidence about Byrom that could have been considered by a sentencing jury: "Byrom suffered a lifetime of abuse that had a jury heard about it could have been sufficiently mitigating for her to receive life imprisonment rather than death for the capital offense of murder-for-hire." The editors concluded: "It would be gravely inhumane to execute a woman as mentally and physically ill as Michelle Byrom—and a frightening contrast to all the brutal woman-killers that previous Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned....To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history. This execution must not happen." Read the full editorial below.

Doubts of Culpability Surround Upcoming Execution in Mississippi

Michelle Byrom is scheduled to be executed in Mississippi on March 27 for conspiring to murder her husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. Her son, Edward Byrom, Jr., known as Junior, confessed to the crime on multiple occasions, and wrote that he lied when he told police his mother and a friend were involved. "I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned in to this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories," he wrote. Junior testified against his mother in exchange for a reduced sentence and is now out of prison. Michelle Byrom was abused by her stepfather, ran away from home at age 15, and moved in with Edward, Sr., that same year, when he was 31. He verbally and physically abused her and threatened violence if she tried to leave. A forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Michelle with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcoholism, and Münchausen syndrome, saying the disorders were consistent with abuse. She was interrogated while in the hospital under the influence of 12 different medications, and only confessed when the Sheriff told her about her son's confession and encouraged her not to let her son "take the rap." Her trial attorneys, trying their first capital case, waived her right to have a jury decide her sentence, believing that would give them grounds for an appeal. They did not present evidence of her mental illnesses, thinking that evidence would be better saved for the appeal. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence (5-3), with Justice Jess Dickinson writing in dissent, "I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot." UPDATE: Read Andrew Cohen's piece about this case The Atlantic.

Two Defendants from the Same Case Illustrate Inequities in Florida's Death Penalty

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Marc Bookman compared the path through the justice system of two co-defendants sentenced to death in Florida after committing murder in 1977. Beauford White was electrocuted in 1987, despite his trial jury voting 12-0 for a life sentence. The trial judge overrode that recommendation and imposed death. White's co-defendant, John Ferguson, lived for another 26 years before being executed in 2013. His jury voted 12-0 for death. The foreman of White's jury later said, "We voted for life because we did not see a shred of evidence indicating that White himself actually took part in the killing." Two dissenting U.S. Supreme Court Justices called White's execution "inexcusable." Ferguson, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia by seven different doctors before the murder that sent him to death row, but courts eventually found him competent enough to be executed. The cases illustrate the wide disparities in the application of the death penalty.

Experts Call for Exclusion from Death Penalty for Veterans with PTSD

Some legal and psychiatric experts have concluded that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder should be ineligible for execution. In an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, mental health experts Drs. Hal Wortzel and David Arciniegas wrote, “The tragedy of the wounded combat veteran who faces execution by the nation he has served seems to be an avoidable one, and we, as a society, should take action to ensure that it does not happen.” A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimated that about 300,000 of the 1.64 million military members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan had post-traumatic stress disorder. The study also found that only 53% of those with such a diagnosis had received treatment in the previous 12 months. In 2008, the New York Times reported 121 cases in which veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with killings. In Texas, an Iraq veteran named John Thuesen is on death row for shooting his girlfriend and her brother in 2009. Thuesen suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and his attorneys have argued he would have received a life sentence if the jury had been fully informed of his illness.

Supreme Court Reverses Kansas Self-Incrimination Ruling

On December 11, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that had granted relief to death row inmate Scott Cheever. The Kansas court had held that Cheever's 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination had been violated because testimony was given at his sentencing hearing by a psychiatrist who examined Cheever pursuant to a court order. Cheever had claimed he was under the influence of drugs at the time of the crime. The psychiatrist testified that his "antisocial personality," rather than his drug use, explained his crime. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the Court, said, "[W]here a defense expert who has examined the defendant testifies that the defendant lacked the requisite mental state to commit an offense, the prosecution may present psychiatric evidence in rebuttal." Since Cheever was relying on his mental state for his defense, the prosecution was entitled to present contrary evidence on his mental state. In an earlier case, the Court had ruled psychiatric statements could not be used against a defendant who "neither initiates a psychiatric evaluation nor attempts to introduce any psychiatric evidence."

SUPREME COURT: Self Incrimination at Issue in Kansas Case

On October 16 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Kansas v. Cheever. One of the key defense witnesses in Scott Cheever’s death penalty trial testified that Cheever’s use of drugs impaired his judgement on the day of the crime. Prosecutors, in turn, called the physician who performed Cheever’s court-mandated mental exam, and he testified that Cheever was aware of what he was doing when he committed the crime, based on Cheever's own statements to the doctor. The doctor's testimony prompted the Kansas Supreme Court to overturn Cheever’s conviction because prosecutors had violated Cheever’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Following oral argument, the Court will decide whether Cheever must be retried or his conviction and death sentence stands. 

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