Mental Illness

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.”

UPCOMING EXECUTIONS: Mentally Ill Oklahoma Inmate To Die Nov. 6

Garry Allen is scheduled for execution in Oklahoma on November 6, the third date set for him this year. Allen's execution has been stayed repeatedly due to questions about his mental competence. He has been diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as dementia caused by seizures, drug abuse, and a gunshot wound to his head sustained during his arrest. In 2008, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board recommended that his death sentence be commuted by a 4-1 vote. Governor Mary Fallin granted a stay in order to consider the Board's recommendation, but denied clemency.  Allen murdered his wife 26 years ago, after she had left him and taken their two children.

MENTAL ILLNESS: At 11th Hour, Supreme Court Upholds Stay of Execution for Florida Inmate

On October 23, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a last-minute federal appeals court stay-of-execution for John Ferguson. Ferguson had been scheduled to be executed earlier that day, but his lawyers filed a series of motions arguing he was mentally incompetent. In September, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed Ferguson’s death warrant for October 16, but allowed time for a mental competency examination. A series of stays and reversals shifted the date to October 18, then to October 23, or later.  Mental health professionals have diagnosed Ferguson as paranoid schizophrenic with a long history of mental illness. Earlier, the ABA released a statement: "The American Bar Association is alarmed that Florida is poised to execute John Ferguson, a man diagnosed as severely mentally ill for more than 40 years, before the constitutionality of his execution is fully evaluated." The Court of Appeals will review whether the Florida Supreme made an unreasonable application of the law or determination of the facts in denying Ferguson's state appeal. Briefs must be filed by November 6. The U.S. Supreme Court had repeatedly denied prior requests for a stay.

Pages