Mental Illness

EDITORIALS: Death Penalty's 'Failure to Account for Severe Mental Illness'

A recent editorial in the New York Times called for greater attention to be paid by courts to inmates on death row with severe mental illness: "The death penalty system fails to take adequate account of severe mental illness, whether at trial, at sentencing or in postconviction proceedings," the paper wrote.  The editorial praised Governor John Kasich of Ohio for granting a two-week reprieve to Abdul Awkal on June 5 just prior to his scheduled execution.   However, the Times said the the Ohio courts should have assumed the responsibility to review Awkal's mental competency before his execution.  An Ohio trial judge recently found there was enough evidence to justify a review of Awkal's sanity, but said he could not hold a hearing immediately because witnesses were not available and he did not have the power to stay the execution.  The Times concluded, "This is yet another reason the penalty should be abolished and further evidence of the grave injustices committed in this system.”

UPCOMING EXECUTIONS: Ohio Set to Execute Inmate with Severe Mental Illness

UPDATE2: Awkal was given a two-week stay by Gov. Kasich to allow time for a mental competency determination. Abdul Awkal (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Ohio on June 6, despite evidence of his severe mental illness. Awkal lived through 8 years of a civil war in Lebanon, his home country, before escaping to Michigan.  He was sentenced to death for murdering his estranged wife and brother-in-law in 1992.  There were indications he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  At one point, the prosecution offered him a plea bargain that would have removed the possibility of a death sentence, but Awkal rejected the offer.  On two occasions, he was deemed by courts to be too mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense.  He was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, depressed type. Awkal also has a history of mental breakdowns, suicidal depression and hallucinations.  He believes he advises the CIA on Islamic religion and culture, and claimed he is being executed because the CIA wants him dead.  Awkal's attorneys have asked Ohio Governor John Kasich to grant him clemency.  UPDATE: Gov. Kasich denied Awkal's clemency request on May 30.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas Scheduled to Execute Forcibly-Medicated Inmate

Steven StaleyUPDATE: Execution stayed by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (May 14).  Steven Staley (pictured) is scheduled to be executed in Texas on May 16, despite the likelihood that he would be deemed incompetent for execution if he was not being forcibly medicated under court order.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to execute an inmate who is mentally incompetent.  In a non-death penalty context, the Court has also held that it is permissilble to forcibly medicate an inmate if if he is dangerous to himself or others, the treatment is medically appropriate and in his medical interest, and there is no less intrusive alternative.  In this instance, the forced medication will likely lead to his death.  Staley's lawyer, John Stickels, said, “The whole reason he’s been medicated is to make him competent to be executed.” Staley has a long history of paranoid schizophrenia and depression. On death row, he has given himself black eyes and self-inflicted lacerations. He has been found spreading feces and covered with urine. If Staley is executed, he will probably be the first inmate executed while being forcibly medicated for mental incompetency. In a similar case in Arkansas, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled that Charles Singleton could be forcibly medicated to make him sane enough for execution, but Singleton began taking his medication voluntarily several weeks before he was executed in 2004.

Oklahoma Execution Imminent Despite Board's Recommendation of Clemency

Oklahoma inmate Garry Allen (pictured) is scheduled for execution on April 12, despite a Pardon and Parole Board's 4-1 recommendation that his sentence be reduced to life without parole. In an unusual move, Mr. Allen originally pleaded guilty to murdering his girlfriend without receiving any benefit in sentencing, and has testified that he did so to spare his family and the victim's family the trauma of a trial. Allen was shot in the head at the time of his arrest.  His lawyers have argued that he is not sane and should not be executed because of his history of mental illness and alcoholism. His court records indicate "probable diagnosis is Schizophrenic Disorder, or Anxiety Disorder in a Paranoid Personality," but in 2008 a jury found him sane enough for execution. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has said she has reviewed the case and does not intend to grant clemency.  UPDATE: A federal judge has granted Allen a stay to explore issues of mental competency.  Oklahoma is appealing the stay to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (April 12, 2012).

Supreme Court to Address Consequences of Mental Incompetency During Death Penalty Appeals

The U.S. Supreme Court granted review in two cases from Arizona and Ohio to explore 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), defendants cannot be executed if they are insane or intellectually disabled (mentally retarded).  The new cases, Ryan v. Gonzalez and Tibbals v. Carter, will decide whether mentally incompetent death row 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, found that the defendants' competency was necessary during federal habeas review, thus staying the proceedings indefinitely. The states that asked the Court to review this question asserted that the appeals can go forward, despite the defendants inability to participate. The cases will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in its next term beginning in October.

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.