Mental Illness

MENTAL ILLNESS: Florida Set to Execute Man Despite Judge's Finding of Paranoid Schizophrenia

On October 12, Judge David Glant (state Circuit Court) rejected a request from attorneys for Florida death row inmate John Ferguson (pictured) to halt his execution, despite acknowledging that Ferguson has severe mental illness. The judge wrote that Ferguson’s “documented history of paranoid schizophrenia” was “credible and compelling,” and that “it is inconceivable” that Ferguson would have received all those years of psychotropic medications and clinical treatment “were he not a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.” However, Judge Glant rejected Ferguson’s request for a stay of execution because, “[r]egardless of his long history of mental illness, there is no evidence that he does not understand what is taking place and why it is taking place.” As early as 1965, court records indicated that Ferguson was having “visual hallucinations.” One doctor said Ferguson “did not know right from wrong nor the nature and consequences of his acts.” A psychological diagnosis in 1975 warned that Ferguson “has a long-standing, severe illness which will most likely require long-term inpatient hospitalization” and that he was “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Ferguson was released the following year and committed a series of murders.  Now, 35 years later, he is scheduled to be executed on October 18. UPDATE: A new execution date has been set for Oct. 23, following the Florida Supreme Court's denial of Ferguson's appeal.  UPDATE: The Oct. 23 execution date has been stayed to allow for a habeas corpus hearing on Oct. 26.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Federal Court Stays Texas Execution Because of Inadequate Hearing

UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the stay of execution and Green was executed on Oct. 10.  Earlier: Jonathan Green was scheduled for execution in Texas on October 10, but a federal judge issued a stay because the state did not afford him due process in examining his mental competency. U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Atlas said, “It is clear from the record that, at a minimum, the trial court prevented Green from presenting testimony by treating mental health professionals, relied on an order solicited from and drafted by the state to which Green had no opportunity to object, and applied at least one incorrect legal standard.” Green's lawyers argued that the Texas competency hearing was so abrupt that medical personnel from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, who had treated Green, were not available to testify.  James Rytting, one of Green’s defense attorneys, said, “Mr. Green is seriously mentally ill; he suffers from schizophrenia and constant hallucinations.” Rytting added that Green's condition has worsened while on death row because of lack of adequate treatment. 

SUPREME COURT: Justices to Consider Whether Death Penalty Appeals Can Continue When Defendant Is Incompetent

On October 9, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider cases from Arizona and Ohio questioning whether death penalty appeals can continue if the defendant is mentally incompetent. Under the Court's prior rulings in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) and in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), capital defendants cannot be executed if they are incompetent or intellectually disabled (mentally retarded). In the upcoming cases, Ryan v. Gonzalez and Tibbals v. Carter, the Court will determine whether mentally incompetent inmates are entitled to a stay of federal habeas proceedings because they cannot assist their counsel. The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Ninth and Sixth Circuits, respectively, held that the defendants' competency was necessary, thus staying the proceedings indefinitely. The states that asked the Court to review this question asserted that the appeals should go forward, since no new information will be considered. The American Psychiatric Association submitted an amicus brief recommending "that post-conviction proceedings initiated by a capital prisoner should be suspended when a mental disorder or disability prevents the prisoner from understanding his situation or communicating with his counsel, and when such communication would be necessary to the fair adjudication of that prisoner’s legal challenges to his conviction or sentence."

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.

Pages