Mental Illness

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. 

Ohio Panel Recommends Banning Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill

On September 26, the Joint Task Force to Review the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty voted 15-2 to recommend a ban on death sentences for people with severe mental illness. The  panel of legal experts was created by the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio State Bar Association and includes judges, attorneys, and legislators. Their proposal will be submitted with other recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly in 2014. Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio, said his organization has been advocating for such a ban since 1999, when the state resumed executions after 36 years with the lethal injection of an inmate with a lifelong history of severe mental illness--Wilford Berry. “We knew this man was severely mentally disabled,” Russell said. “It is inhumane to execute someone like that.” Panel member Judge Kathleen Keough said the exclusion was “a matter of common decency,” and defendants with mental illness should be considered similar to juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities, who are already excluded from the death penalty.

STUDIES: ABA Criticizes Texas Death Penalty in Latest Report

On September 18, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Texas’s death penalty system. The report found: “In many areas, Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, fails to rely upon scientifically reliable methods and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and provides the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.” (Exec. Sum.) The assessment made several recommendations to help prevent wrongful convictions and improve due process, including requiring the indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent crimes, abandoning the law's emphasis on predicting the “future dangerousness” of the defendant in deciding death sentences, and enacting appropriate statutes to deal with capital defendants with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness. The report commended Texas on recent improvements to their justice system such as better lineup procedures, disclosure of police reports to the defense, and the establishment of two defender offices to provide capital representation throughout the state. The assessment team included Professor Jennifer Laurin from the University of Texas School of Law (Chair) and former Texas Governor Mark White.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas High Court Strikes Down Forcible Medication of A Death Row Inmate

On September 11, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held (5-4) that a trial court illegally ordered the forcible medication of a mentally ill death row inmate for the purpose of rendering him competent to be executed. The case involves Steven Staley, whose mental health began to deteriorate when he entered death row in 1991. He received an execution date in 2006, but was deemed too ill to be executed. A court ordered that his paranoid schizophrenia be treated by forcible medication, which continued for six years. In its ruling, the CCA held that “the evidence conclusively shows that appellant's competency to be executed was achieved solely through the involuntary medication, which the trial court had no authority to order under the competency-to-be-executed statute. The finding that appellant is competent must be reversed for lack of any evidentiary support.” The ruling did not address whether the state constitution forbids the execution of someone forcibly drugged or whether the defendant in this case is too ill to be executed at all. Read full text of the ruling here.

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