Mental Illness

NEW VOICES: Kentucky Prosecutors Call for Death Penalty Reform

An Op-Ed signed by eleven current and former Kentucky prosecutors calls for reforms to Kentucky's death penalty, in light of the recent report issued by the American Bar Association. The ABA report was released in December after a two-year study of fairness and accuracy in capital cases in Kentucky. The prosecutors cite Kentucky's "unacceptable" 60% error rate in death sentencing, saying "As a matter of basic fairness, we must pause to understand and reform the way capital punishment is administered in our state." They recommend a suspension of executions until reforms are implemented, in order to ensure a fair process. Among their suggestions for reform are a proposal currently being considered by the state legislature that would exempt severly mentally ill defendants from the death penalty. Other recommendations include preservation and testing of biological evidence, increased funding for indigent defense, and revision of jury instructions. They conclude, "The hallmark of our criminal justice system is that its process is fair and its results are reliable and accurate. Our reversal rate undermines this hallmark. These troubling issues in capital cases must be addressed now."

Read full op-ed below.

UPCOMING EXECUTIONS: Arizona to Execute Defendant with History of Mental Problems

On February 29, Arizona is scheduled to execute Robert Moorman, who was sentenced to death for a 1984 murder. Moorman's representatives have said the crime was committed after years of sexual abuse by the defendant’s adoptive mother, whom he then killed and dismembered her body.  Moorman was diagnosed with mental retardation and attended special education classes while in public school. His first stay at a mental institution occurred when he was 13. At a recent clemency hearing, Moorman said he did not remember the details of the murder. His health has slowly deteriorated while in prison. He had a stroke in 2007 and underwent a quintuple bypass last November. Moorman was born to a 15-year-old girl who drank heavily and engaged in prostitution, according to court records and testimony at his clemency hearing. His father abandoned him and his mother died at age 17.  He then went to live with his maternal grandparents until he was put up for adoption because of his grandfather’s alcohol abuse. UPDATE: Moorman was executed on Feb. 29.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Mississippi Inmate With Severe Mental Illness Faces Imminent Execution

Edwin Turner (pictured), a death row inmate in Mississippi, is scheduled for execution on February 8. His attorney, Jim Craig, has petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and Governor Phil Bryant for a reprieve, based in part on Turner's mental illness.  Craig said, “The Supreme Court has not decided the question of whether a prisoner with a severe mental disorder or disability which significantly impairs that person’s ability to rationally process information, to make reasonable judgments and to control their impulses, whether people in that category can be executed. So we’re asking the Supreme Court to establish that it would be contrary to consensus of moral values, that it would be cruel and unusual punishment, to execute someone with severe mental illness.”  Turner is facing execution for the 1995 shooting of a clerk and a customer at a gas station.  His accomplice received a sentence of life without parole after pleading guilty to murder.  Turner has a long family history of mental illness: his great-grandmother and grandmother were committed to state hospitals. Turner’s mother attempted suicide twice, and his father was killed in an explosion that some believe was a suicide.  Turner has also attempted suicide several times, including one instance that left his face permanently disfigured. UPDATE: Altlhough a federal District Court granted a stay on Feb. 6, the Court of Appeals lifted the stay on Feb. 8, and the state is planning to carry out the execution as scheduled.

Relatives of Inmate Who Taunted Authorities About Ease on Death Row Paint a Different Picture

Relatives of a North Carolina inmate who bragged he had an easy life on death row recently made clear that he is seriously mentally ill and suffering greatly in his confinement.  Danny Hembree Jr. had written a letter to his local newspaper tauntingly describing his experience on death row as a life of leisure filled with color TV and naps.  However, his sister, Kathy Hembree Ledbetter, said he was a depressed man who had lashed out in hopelessness.  She apologized to the victim's families and the community for any hurt the original letter had cuased.  Hembree's family contradicted the letter he had written to the Gaston Gazette, stating it was not an accurate reflection of his life on death row, and that he is mentally ill and severely depressed.  Hembree's sister released a letter he sent to her in which he admitted, “I try to put on a nonchalant attitude for you guys but it is overwhelming and depressing to look at these walls and electric doors and bright lights 24-7 and digest the fact that I’m never going to leave until they murder me or I just die. Either way I’m never leaving here alive. I know I promised you that I would fight this but I’m almost fought out.” Kathy Ledbetter said, “I am sharing a letter he wrote recently to me in order to try to reveal the truth about his mental and emotional state which was brought out at his trial. He has had severe mental illness for over 35 years of his 50 years of life. He is not happy, he is not comfortable and he is not well. He is being punished for his crimes and he is in a bad place. I feel deeply for the families who have been affected by his actions, actions that were motivated by mental illness.”

Oregon Governor Declares Moratorium on All Executions

In a statement released on Nov. 22, Governor John Kitzhaber of Oregon announced a halt to all executions in the state.  "I am convinced we can find a better solution that keeps society safe, supports the victims of crime and their families and reflects Oregon values," he wrote. "I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer; and I will not allow further executions while I am Governor."  His action halts the upcoming execution of Gary Haugen, an inmate who waived his appeals and was scheduled to die on December 6. The governor further stated he acted, "Both because of my own deep personal convictions about capital punishment and also because in practice, Oregon has an expensive and unworkable system that fails to meet basic standards of justice."

CLEMENCY: Ohio Death Row Inmate Granted Clemency, Citing 'Brutally Abusive Upbringing'

On September 26, Ohio Governor John Kasich (pictured) granted clemency to Joseph Murphy, commuting his death sentence to life without parole, citing the defendant's horrific childhood. Murphy was scheduled for execution on October 18. The Ohio Parole Board had unanimously recommended sparing Murphy's life, citing evidence from Murphy's childhood that indicated he was beaten, starved and sexually abused.  The Parole Board also cited a 1992 Ohio Supreme Court decision in which late Justice Moyer said he knew of no other case in which a defendant "was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy."  Governor Kasich issued the following statement regarding the clemency: "Joseph Murphy’s murder of Ruth Predmore was heinous and disturbing and he deserves—and continues to receive—severe punishment. Even though as a child and adolescent Murphy suffered uniquely severe and sustained verbal, physical and sexual abuse from those who should have loved him, it does not excuse his crime.... After examining this case in detail with counsel I agree with Chief Justice Moyer, the National Association of Mental Illness and the Parole Board’s unanimous 8-0 decision that considering Joseph Murphy’s brutally abusive upbringing and the relatively young age at which he committed this terrible crime, the death penalty is not appropriate in this case. Thus, I have commuted his sentence to life in prison with no chance for parole."

MENTAL ILLNESS: North Carolina Man Guilty of Shooting Spree at Nursing Home Avoids Death Penalty

Despite being found guilty of eight murders of mostly elderly people and the prosecution seeking the death penalty, a North Carolina jury recently convicted Robert Stewart of second degree murder, thereby avoiding the possibility of a death sentence.  On September 5, he was sentenced to prison for over 100 years.  Stewart had gone on a shooting spree at a Carthage nursing home in 2009, apparently under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs.  Although none of the jurors disclosed their rationale for opting for second-degree instead of first-degree murder, both diminished mental capacity and voluntary intoxication were offered as rationales by the Stewart's defense team.  The prosecutor, Peter Strickland, said the families are “getting solace in the fact that he was sentenced to more than 131 years."

NEW RESOURCES: Childhood Abuse May Have Lasting Behavioral Effects Similar to Trauma from War

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, recently discussed the impact of violence on children, comparing its effects to problems faced by soldiers returning from war. He noted, “For every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with symptoms of depression or PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], there are around 10 children in the United States who are traumatized by exposure to family violence, sexual abuse, neglect and assault, with consequences comparable to those of adult exposure to war-zone violence.” Many abused children, if not properly cared for, will exhibit behavioral and psychological problems.  Dr. Bessel expressed concern that funding from such treatment might be withdrawn: "Untreated, traumatized children become failing adults who populate our jails and overwhelm our human services agencies. Cutting the development of effective treatments will produce many years of increasing costs and unquantifiable human misery."

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