Mental Illness

MENTAL ILLNESS: Man Who Defended Himself in a Cowboy Suit Deemed Sane Enough for Execution

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently held that Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti is sane enough to be executed, despite his long history of severe mental illness. Panetti was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his in-laws. Putting aside Panetti's bizarre behavior in court, the judge allowed him to represent himself at trial, where he wore a purple cowboy suit and subpoenaed Jesus Christ and Anne Bancroft as witnesses. Panetti had been hospitalized 11 times for mental illnes prior to the murders and had been released only 2 months earlier. In a previous ruling, the Fifth Circuit held that Panetti only needed to realize he had committed a crime and was therefore being executed in order to satisfy the Eighth Amendment's ban on executing individuals who are insane. The U.S. Supreme Court stopped the pending execution and held that courts should consider a defendant's complete mental history in determining whether he has a rational understanding of his situation. Panetti has said his execution is a ruse to hide a satanic plot to kill him. The Fifth Circuit relied in part on taped conversations between Panetti and his family to determine his competency.

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida's Narrow Interpretation of Mental Competency Leads to New Date

UPDATE: Ferguson was executed on Aug. 5. Florida has set an August 5 execution date for John Ferguson, a death row inmate who has suffered from severe mental illness for more than four decades. As far back as 1965, Ferguson was found to experience visual hallucinations. He was sent to mental institutions and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, delusional, and aggressive. In 1975, a mental health doctor described Ferguson as “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Nevertheless, he was released less than a year later. Ferguson believes he is the "Prince of God" and is being executed so can save the world. Ferguson's attorneys recently filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asserting that Florida courts have applied the wrong standard for mental competency, ignoring the current interpretation of this issue by the High Court, which requires that an inmate have a rational understanding of why he is being executed. An earlier editorial in the Tampa Bay Times opposing Ferguson's execution, agreed, “Florida is embracing an interpretation of competency for execution so pinched that it would virtually extinguish limits on executing the severely mentally ill. The state says Ferguson is aware that he is being put to death and that he committed murder, and is therefore competent to be executed.”

UPCOMING EXECUTION: Mentally Ill Inmate Asks for Execution in Alabama

Andrew Lackey is scheduled for execution in Alabama on July 25, despite suffering from mental illness his entire life. Lackey asked for an execution date, even though neither his state nor federal appeals have been completed. Despite extensive evidence of serious mental problems, the trial judge refused to order an expert competency evaluation, failed to inquire about medications he is taking and how they affect his mental state, and did not ask state officials about their diagnosis of Lackey’s mental condition. After a failed suicide attempt, Lackey asked the state to carry out his execution. Attorneys at the Equal Justice Initiative, who had represented Andrew Lackey, recently argued that the judge should not have permitted him to waive his appeals until his mental competency was properly evaluated.

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.

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