Mental Illness

MENTAL ILLNESS: Evangelical Leaders Call for Mercy for Condemned Inmate

On September 26, Florida Governor Rick Scott (pictured) agreed to temporarily stay the pending execution of John Errol Ferguson in order to allow time for a panel of psychiatrists to determine whether Ferguson is mentally competent. The day before, evangelical leaders, including Dr. Joel C. Hunter, Senior Pastor of the 15,000-member Northland Church in Central Florida, sent a letter to the governor urging that Ferguson be allowed to live. They wrote, “The State’s psychiatrists have consistently found, over 40 years, that Mr. Ferguson suffers from severe schizophrenia and mental impairment. Now a senior citizen, he still suffers from delusions and hallucinations....The jurors at Mr. Ferguson’s sentencing hearings did not hear evidence of his extreme and long-term mental illness, the horrific abuse he experienced as a child, or the traumatic brain injury he suffered as a result of a gunshot wound to his head as a young man, which further contributed to his mental illness. Any one of these factors might have persuaded his juries to spare his life and sentence him to life in prison, but his attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence to the jurors.”  The letter concluded, "Our system must be humane and hold life sacred, while taking every step possible to support and facilitate the healing of victims."

LAW REVIEWS: Should Mentally Incompetent Death Row Inmates be Forcibly Medicated?

A recent article by Professors Brian D. Shannon (pictured) of Texas Tech and Victor R. Scarano of the University of Houston examines the ethical implications of forcibly medicating mentally incompetent death-row inmates in order to prepare them for execution.  According to the authors, this issue, particulary in Texas, pits "the ethical duties of the medical and legal professions in opposition and casts a shadow over the legitimate and appropriate intentions and professional responsibilities of physicians and lawyers." While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that mentally incompetent prisoners cannot be executed, only lower courts have ruled on the question of forcing death row inmates to take medication with the purpose of rendering them competent for execution. The article concludes with a legislative recommendation that would solve the ethical dilemma of forcible medication: "[U]pon a determination by the trial court that the defendant is incompetent to be executed (and following any appeal), the court should vacate the death sentence and substitute a life sentence without the possibility of parole," thus allowing psychiatrists to "proceed to treat the symptoms of the inmate’s serious mental illness, without the ethical concern that such treatment could lead to the inmate’s execution."

TIME ON DEATH ROW: After 34 Years, California's First Death Case Continues

Douglas Stankewitz, a Native American, was the first person sent to California's death row after capital punishment was reinstated in 1978. Thirty-four years later, he remains there as his appeals continue.  His conviction was overturned in 1982 because he had not received a mental competency hearing, despite findings by court-appointed doctors that he was mentally unstable and brain-damaged as a result of childhood abuse. His second trial is now being appealed on the grounds that his court-appointed attorney was ineffective. Stankewitz maintains that, although he was involved in a crime when the victim was killed, he did not commit the murder.  Voters in California will be considering a referendum to repeal the death penalty in November. Supporters of the initiative say the death penalty is costing the state $184 million a year in legal costs, and life sentences would reduce the costs to just $11.5 million.  Also, taxpayers would save $65 million a year in prison expenditures because each death row inmate costs $90,000 per year in extra security and services. Opponents of the referendum say that the high costs are driven by needless appeals.  California has 728 inmates on death row.  Since 1978, it has carried out 13 executions, and 3 men have been exonerated.  Many more on the row have died of natural causes.

Lingering Case Demonstrates Problems With New Mexico's Earlier Use of Death Penalty

New Mexico abolished the death penalty for future offenses in 2009.  However, two people still face execution, including Timothy Allen (pictured), who has been on death row for nearly 17 years.  His superficial trial and woefully inadequate representation reveal systemic flaws in the state's application of capital punishment.  The lead attorney in Allen's trial had never tried a death penalty case before, and failed to research Allen's psychiatric history. Later investigation revealed that Allen had been diagnosed with and treated for schizophrenia and experienced auditory hallucinations. According to one psychiatric report, Allen was psychotic at the time of the murder for which he was sentenced to death, and committed the crime “while under the influence of command hallucinations, not willfully.” No witnesses were called to testify on Allen's behalf during the sentencing phase of his trial. The supervising attorney who assigned the inexperienced attorney to the case was himself subject to drug testing by a state disciplinary board and was of little help in the case.  Allen's current attorneys argue that the case would be tried very differently today and that he was deprived of his constitutional right to a fair trial.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Judge Denies Psychiatric Evaluation for Schizophrenic Death Row Inmate

On July 24, a Texas county judge declined to order a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether Marcus Druery is competent to be executed on August 1.  Earlier this month, Druery's attorneys requested a full investigation of his mental status, arguing he hears voices, believes he is being poisoned with feces-spiked food, and lacks the understanding of his legal situation required under the constitution for execution. Reports by mental health officials at the University of Texas show that Druery experienced ongoing mental health problems and is schizophrenic.  Prison medical records also show Druery was prescribed anti-psychotic medications and his mental status has fluctuated during his years on death row.  Kate Black, one of Druery's attorneys, said that standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Panetti vs. Quarterman require an inmate facing execution to have a "rational understanding" of his crime and punishment.  In 2011, Druery claimed to be attacked by guards and prisoners, saying, "They refused to unwire me from speakers. I was hooked up to speaker system. I do not know who did it when, where or why. I thought I was supposed to go back out to the world."  Druery was sentenced to death for a robbery-murder that occurred in 2002. UPDATE: Execution stayed.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Still Another Execution Scheduled Despite Serious Mental Health Concerns

Marcus Druery (pictured) is facing execution in Texas on August 1 even though he has shown clear signs of mental incompetence. The Texas Defender Service recently filed a motion to delay his execution, citing the findings of a psychologist who examined Druery earlier this year: "His delusional ideas so pervade his understanding of his case that he no longer understands that it was him who committed the crime, and that he's the one who has to suffer the punishment."  Another assessment of his mental capacities revealed that he does not adquately understand why he is being punished: “Because of his inflexible, psychotic and delusional interpretation of his circumstances, Mr. Druery does not have the capacity to rationally understand the connection between his crime and his punishment.”  The state has acknowledged that Druery suffers from delusions, schizophrenia, "thought broadcasting" and auditory hallucinations. However, officials have yet to determine whether his medical condition meets the legal definition of insanity. Kate Black, one of his attorneys, said, “When you have an individual who is so psychotic that he no longer has an understanding of what it is he's being punished for, that lacks the purpose for which the death penalty was created. The state's own experts have diagnosed him as having paranoid and disorganized schizophrenia. He's been housed in the psychiatric unit. So, they're well aware of his irrationality, and yet have still sought an execution date in this case."  On July 24, a preliminary hearing will be held to determine whether a full competency investigation is needed.  UPDATE: On July 24, the county court denied a full competency investigation, but did not rule on Druery's competency to be executed.

Executions Scheduled for July 18 in Texas and Georgia Present Serious Mental Health Issues

Yokamon Hearn (pictured) is facing execution in Texas on July 18 despite clear evidence of brain damage since his early childhood. Hearn’s trial attorneys failed to conduct an adequate investigation into Hearn’s early history, which would have uncovered mitigating evidence that he was neglected by his parents and had a history of mental health problems. His mother's alcoholism was so severe that she drank to the point of passing out during her pregnancy with Mr. Hearn.  He has been diagnosed with a disabling condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Hearn’s current attorneys said there is a strong likelihood that one or more jurors would have reached a different sentencing conclusion had they been presented this important mitigating evidence.  Further interfering with an adequate review of Hearn's case is Texas's resistance to apply a recent Supreme Court decision regarding inadequate representation at both trial and appeal.  UPDATE: Hearn was executed on July 18.

In Georgia, the State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Warren Hill’s request to commute his death sentence on July 16. He, too, is scheduled to die on July 18. UPDATE: Execution date changed to July 23, as state changes to a single-drug execution protocol.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted the common thread in Hearn's and Hill's cases.  While in prison between the age of 28 and 33, Warren Hill tested at a grade level of approximately 6-7, and had an IQ within the range of mental retardation. Mr. Hill’s attorneys described his childhood: “Mr. Hill has suffered from neurological impairment since birth, manifested in a vulnerability to seizures and in mental retardation. During his school years, his teachers and fellow students regarded him as the slowest student in class. Because there were no special education programs available in the segregated schools attended by Mr. Hill, his teachers opted for 'social promotion,' an informal but then-common practice of moving students on to higher grades in spite of their inability to master age-appropriate work.”  Although a state judge agreed that Hill met the criteria for the diagnosis of mental retardation, the Georgia Supreme Court later said Hill failed to prove his intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  See Hill's Motion for a Stay of Execution filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on July 16.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Ohio Execution Halted After Inmate Found Mentally Incompetent

On June 18, the Ohio Supreme Court stayed the execution of Abdul Awkal (pictured) indefinitely following a county court's ruling that he was mentally incompetent to face execution. Awkal was originally scheduled for execution on June 6, but shortly before the execution Governor John Kasich granted a two-week reprieve to allow time for a mental competency hearing. Judge Stuart Friedman presided over that hearing and subsequently ruled that Awkal was too mentally ill to be put to death, citing Awkal’s belief that the CIA was orchestrating his execution and that he played a crucial role in the country’s war on terrorism.  The judge wrote: "Based upon an exhaustive review of all the evidence . . . Abdul Awkal presently lacks the capacity to form a rational understanding as to the reason the state intends to execute him."  Awkal was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of his wife and brother-in-law.  Originally, he was found incompetent to stand trial. If a court later finds his competency has been restored, he could still face execution.

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