Mental Illness

Executions Scheduled for July 18 in Texas and Georgia Present Serious Mental Health Issues

Yokamon Hearn (pictured) is facing execution in Texas on July 18 despite clear evidence of brain damage since his early childhood. Hearn’s trial attorneys failed to conduct an adequate investigation into Hearn’s early history, which would have uncovered mitigating evidence that he was neglected by his parents and had a history of mental health problems. His mother's alcoholism was so severe that she drank to the point of passing out during her pregnancy with Mr. Hearn.  He has been diagnosed with a disabling condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Hearn’s current attorneys said there is a strong likelihood that one or more jurors would have reached a different sentencing conclusion had they been presented this important mitigating evidence.  Further interfering with an adequate review of Hearn's case is Texas's resistance to apply a recent Supreme Court decision regarding inadequate representation at both trial and appeal.  UPDATE: Hearn was executed on July 18.

In Georgia, the State Board of Pardons and Parole denied Warren Hill’s request to commute his death sentence on July 16. He, too, is scheduled to die on July 18. UPDATE: Execution date changed to July 23, as state changes to a single-drug execution protocol.  A recent article in The Atlantic noted the common thread in Hearn's and Hill's cases.  While in prison between the age of 28 and 33, Warren Hill tested at a grade level of approximately 6-7, and had an IQ within the range of mental retardation. Mr. Hill’s attorneys described his childhood: “Mr. Hill has suffered from neurological impairment since birth, manifested in a vulnerability to seizures and in mental retardation. During his school years, his teachers and fellow students regarded him as the slowest student in class. Because there were no special education programs available in the segregated schools attended by Mr. Hill, his teachers opted for 'social promotion,' an informal but then-common practice of moving students on to higher grades in spite of their inability to master age-appropriate work.”  Although a state judge agreed that Hill met the criteria for the diagnosis of mental retardation, the Georgia Supreme Court later said Hill failed to prove his intellectual disability “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  See Hill's Motion for a Stay of Execution filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on July 16.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Ohio Execution Halted After Inmate Found Mentally Incompetent

On June 18, the Ohio Supreme Court stayed the execution of Abdul Awkal (pictured) indefinitely following a county court's ruling that he was mentally incompetent to face execution. Awkal was originally scheduled for execution on June 6, but shortly before the execution Governor John Kasich granted a two-week reprieve to allow time for a mental competency hearing. Judge Stuart Friedman presided over that hearing and subsequently ruled that Awkal was too mentally ill to be put to death, citing Awkal’s belief that the CIA was orchestrating his execution and that he played a crucial role in the country’s war on terrorism.  The judge wrote: "Based upon an exhaustive review of all the evidence . . . Abdul Awkal presently lacks the capacity to form a rational understanding as to the reason the state intends to execute him."  Awkal was sentenced to death in 1992 for the murder of his wife and brother-in-law.  Originally, he was found incompetent to stand trial. If a court later finds his competency has been restored, he could still face execution.

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.