Mental Illness

Nation's Longest Serving Death Row Inmate Dies 40 Years After Conviction

Gary Alvord, a Florida inmate who spent more time on death row than any other inmate in the country, died on May 19 of natural causes. Alvord was 66 years old and had been sentenced to death for murder almost 40 years ago, on April 9, 1974. He suffered from schizophrenia and had no close family. Bill Sheppard, who represented Alvord for almost four decades, said, “Gary is a product of a sick system. He was a living example of why we should not have the death penalty.... I would love for the state of Florida to tell us how much money they wasted trying to kill a guy they couldn't kill. The death penalty is getting us nothing but broke.” In the time Alvord spent on death row, 75 other inmates were executed in Florida, many of whom spent half as long as he did on death row. Alvord faced execution at least twice, but his severe mental illness prevented the execution from being carried out. In 1984, he was sent to a state hospital to receive treatment for his psychiatric condition, but doctors refused to treat him, citing the ethical dilemma of making a patient well enough so he can be killed. Alvord’s final appeal expired in 1998.

NEW VOICES: Questioning the Decision to Seek the Death Penalty Against James Holmes

Criminal Justice Professor James Acker of the University at Albany recently discussed the decision by the District Attorney to seek the death penalty against James Holmes, the man accused of killing 12 people and wounding many others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. In addition to concerns about the defendant's possible mental illness, Acker raised a number of questions about this course of action: "Will the victims and their families somehow be made whole? Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man's death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide? Would this man's execution serve an ineffable impulse for justice?" In his op-ed for CNN, Acker also examined the reasons for the dramatic decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.: "a revulsion against the awful prospect of executing an innocent person; the racial and social class inequities imbued in the death penalty's administration; the enormous financial burden placed on state and local budgets in supporting capital prosecutions; the availability of life imprisonment without parole to keep the streets safe." He concluded by asking, "[W]hat good would be accomplished through this ritual act--[and would] the lives of the individual victims and Coloradoans generally [] be made better, and justice served by his lethal injection." Read the full op-ed below.

RESOURCES: "Handbook of Forensic Psychiatric Practice in Capital Cases"

A new international manual covering psychiatric and psychological issues arising in capital cases has been prepared by a team of forensic psychiatrists for use by attorneys, judges, and mental health officials. The Handbook of Forensic Psychiatric Practice in Capital Cases sets out model structures for psychiatric assessment and report writing for every stage of a death penalty case, from pre-trial to execution. It also discusses ethical issues, particularly with regard to an inmate's competence to be executed. The handbook is published by The Death Penalty Project (DPP) and Forensic Psychiatry Chambers, both based in England. It is available online or in print from DPP.

STUDIES: Six-Part Series Explores Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in Texas

The Texas Tribune recently published a six-part series examining the plight of mentally ill defendants in the Texas criminal justice system. The series focused particularly on death penalty cases, including that of Andre Thomas, a man with a long history of mental illness. He pulled his own eye out in 2004, and later explained that he did it because he kept seeing his wife, whom he killed along with his children just days before. Thomas is among thousands of mentally ill inmates in the Texas system, which has seen years of budget cuts resulting in the reduction of programs. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, more than 20% of the 290 inmates on Texas death row are diagnosed with some type of mental illness. One former Texas death row inmate, Anthony Graves, recently told a U.S. Congressional committee that he lived under the "worst conditions imaginable" when he was on death row, which is a form of solitary confinement. He said the cells were filthy and the food contained rodent waste. Inmates with mental illness frequently deteriorated while on death row; some inmates set themselves on fire or smeared feces on their faces. Graves was later cleared of all charges and freed from death row, but said he still has not recovered from the experience. An average of 8,500 Texas prison inmates considered dangerous or troublesome are housed in administrative segregation, another form of solitary confinement, typically for 3 years. Most have no access to rehabilitative programs. 

Supreme Court to Review Protection Against Self-Incrimination in Kansas Death Case

On February 25, the U.S Supreme Court agreed to review a decision by the Kansas Supreme Court overturning the conviction and death sentence of Scott Cheever, who killed a sheriff during a drug investigation. Cheever argued that his own drug use made it impossible for him to have killed with premeditation, a factor necessary for a capital murder conviction. The case had been previously charged in federal court. In that case, the trial judge had ordered a mental health evaluation because Cheever was similarly claiming a lack of intent due to drug use. The federal charges were eventually dismissed, and the state took up the prosecution. At the state trial, the prosecution used Cheever's statements during the mental evaluation to rebut his claim of incapacity. The Kansas Supreme Court held that to be a violation of Cheever's 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Generally, statements from a state mental health evaluation may only be used against the defendant if he has raised a defense based on a mental disease or defect. The Kansas Court held that Cheever's claim of drug use was not such a defense. The case, Kansas v. Cheever, No. 12-609, will be argued in the fall.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Inmate Gouges Out Eyes, Remains on Death Row

Texas death-row inmate Andre Thomas has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and auditory hallucinations drove him to gouge out both of his eyes. Nevertheless, prosecutors still believe he should be executed. In a revealing recent essay in Mother Jones magazine, author Marc Bookman described in vivid detail Thomas's family history of mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence going back at least two generations.  A brief excerpt from the article epitomized Thomas's delusions:  "On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that 'The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world.'" In the three weeks before he killed his wife and two children, police were asked to apprehend him and bring him to a mental hospital on two separate occasions.  After Thomas removed his second eye, he was moved to a facility for mentally ill prisoners, but the state continues to pursue his execution.

First Inmate to be Executed in 2013 Asked for Death Penalty; Exhibited Severe Mental Illness

Robert Gleason is scheduled to be the first person executed in the U.S. in 2013 on the night of January 16 in Virginia. At his trial, he told the court he wanted the death penalty and has waived all his appeals since his conviction. He has chosen to be executed by electrocution. Gleason's lawyers maintain he is severely mentally ill and his mental capacity has deteriorated during his time on death row. He suffers from extreme paranoia, delusional thinking, severe anxiety and other mental afflictions. Attorney Jon Sheldon stated that Gleason’s "mental illness is causing him to be suicidal, and he is enlisting the government's help to end his life.” His life was described as "profoundly disturbed and traumatic," marked by abuse as a child, with depression and other mental health problems as an adult. Virginia had no executions and no death sentences in 2012.

Supreme Court Allows Death Penalty Review to Proceed Even Without Competent Defendant

On January 8, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected indefinite delays in the federal review of death penalty cases when inmates are mentally incompetent to assist their attorneys. Writing for the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas said such appeals are usually based on established facts, not requiring further input from the defendant. “Given the backward-looking, record-based nature of most federal habeas proceedings, counsel can generally provide effective representation to a habeas petitioner regardless of the petitioner’s competence,” he said. “Attorneys are quite capable of reviewing the state-court record, identifying legal errors, and marshaling relevant arguments, even without their clients’ assistance.” The opinion consolidated the cases of Ryan v. Gonzales (Arizona) and Tibbals v. Carter (Ohio). In Carter's case, the Court left open the window for a temporary stay if his appeals rely on evidence outside the court record and if he might regain competence. “If a district court concludes that [Carter’s] claim could substantially benefit from the petitioner’s assistance, the district court should take into account the likelihood that the petitioner will regain competence in the foreseeable future,” Thomas wrote. “Where there is no reasonable hope of competence, a stay is inappropriate and merely frustrates the state’s attempts to defend its presumptively valid judgment.”

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