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NEW RESOURCES: The Supreme Court’s Emerging Death Penalty Jurisprudence: Severe Mental Illness as the Next Frontier

Professor Bruce Winick of the Miami School of Law has written an article arguing that the Supreme Court should extend the protection it presently offers to those with mental retardation and juveniles to offenders with severe mental illness, as well. In The Supreme Court’s Emerging Death Penalty Jurisprudence: Severe Mental Illness as the Next Frontier, Winick reviews the High Court’s analysis of capital punishment under the Eighth Amendment with a focus on when the Court has found the death penalty disproportionate to the crime or for the offender. While Winick argues that the Supreme Court is not prepared to render the death penalty itself as cruel and unusual, he concludes that, “At least some (although by no means all) offenders suffering from severe mental illness, like those with mental retardation and juveniles, will have sufficiently diminished culpability and deterability at the time of the offense to render capital punishment a disproportionate penalty under the Eighth Amendment.”


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Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and the National Alliance on Mental Illness To Launch National Project

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) are working together to launch a national project concerned with the intersection of the capital punishment system and people with severe mental illness. The groups will host a press conference in San Antonio, Texas on October 3rd. Speakers will include the Director of MVFHR, the NAMI Policy and Legal Director, family members of victims murdered by people with mental illness, and family members of people with mental illness who were executed. The press conference will be held at 3:00 PM in San Antonio at the University of the Incarnate Word, Bonilla Science Hall auditorium, room 129. (Source: MVFHR press release). See also Mental Illness and Victims.

 


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Federal Judge Sharply Criticizes Texas System in Ordering Stay of Execution

Jeff Wood’s execution was stayed with only hours remaining by U.S. District Court Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio. The judge chastised the Texas courts for their refusal last week to hire mental health experts to determine whether Wood (pictured) was insane or appoint a lawyer to represent him for a competency hearing. The state courts had ruled that Wood had to show he was insane before they would appoint a lawyer and a psychologist to help prove he was insane. Judge Garcia's opinion said such a system is absurd, “With all due respect, a system that requires an insane person to first make ‘a substantial showing’ of his own lack of mental capacity without the assistance of counsel or a mental health expert, in order to obtain such assistance is, by definition, an insane system.”

In their appeal, Wood’s attorneys argued he is too delusional to understand why he is to die. Attorney Scott Sullivan said, “He will become delusional and deny the apparent reality right in front of him,” adding that Wood believes he is the victim of a Freemason conspiracy. In granting the stay, the court noted that Wood's bizarre statements at his trial and in prison, “at least arguably suggest the petitioner lacks a rational understanding of the casual link between his role in his criminal offense and the reason he has been sentenced to death.”


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Pennsylvania Court Allows Forced Medication of Mentally Incompetent Death Row Inmates, Moving Them Closer to Execution

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state can force two death row inmates to take anti-psychotic medication so they are mentally competent enough to proceed with their appeals and be executed. The two inmates were sentenced to death but were found incompetent to participate in the appeals filed on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that mentally incompetent inmates may not be executed. The Pennsylvania court overturned lower court decisions and directed them “to order that appellee be administered, involuntarily if necessary, anti-psychotic medication to render him competent.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state can force two death row inmates to take anti-psychotic medication so they are mentally competent enough to proceed with their appeals and be executed. The two inmates were sentenced to death but were found incompetent to participate in the appeals filed on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that mentally incompetent inmates may not be executed. The Pennsylvania court overturned lower court decisions and directed them “to order that appellee be administered, involuntarily if necessary, anti-psychotic medication to render him competent.”

Justice Max Baer dissented, saying, “[T]he governmental interest in carrying out the sentences of death fails to outweigh the violation of [defendants'] Sam’s and Watson’s liberty interests in not having psychiatric medication forced upon them.” In response to the opinion that the forced medication was in the defendants’ best interests so appeals could proceed, he argued that each defendant, “has as much of an interest in avoiding an unwanted and forced drugging as he has in pursuing collateral relief.”

(E. Lounsberry, “Pa. High court Oks forced drugging of mentally ill death row inmates,” Philadelphia Examiner, July 22, 2008). See Mental Illness.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state can force two death row inmates to take anti-psychotic medication so they are mentally competent enough to proceed with their appeals and be executed. The two inmates were sentenced to death but were found incompetent to participate in the appeals filed on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that mentally incompetent inmates may not be executed. The Pennsylvania court overturned lower court decisions and directed them “to order that appellee be administered, involuntarily if necessary, anti-psychotic medication to render him competent.”


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Pennsylvania Court Allows Forced Medication of Mentally Incompetent Death Row Inmates, Moving Them Closer to Execution

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently ruled that the state can force two death row inmates to take anti-psychotic medication so they are mentally competent enough to proceed with their appeals and be executed. The two inmates were sentenced to death but were found incompetent to participate in the appeals filed on their behalf. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that mentally incompetent inmates may not be executed. The Pennsylvania court overturned lower court decisions and directed them “to order that appellee be administered, involuntarily if necessary, anti-psychotic medication to render him competent.”


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VA Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Ill Man

WaltonVirginia Governor Timothy Kaine commuted the death sentence of Percy Walton (pictured) to life in prison without parole. Kaine cancelled the execution, scheduled for 9pm on June 10, because “one cannot reasonably conclude that Walton is fully aware of the punishment he is about to suffer and why he is to suffer it”. The Governor found “that Walton’s clemency petition presented significant evidence that Walton had schizophrenia, that such a mental illness can cause serious deterioration of mental competence, and that Walton’s mental state had deteriorated since 2003 such that there was more than a minimal chance that Walton no longer knew why he was to be executed or was even aware of the final punishment he was about to receive.”

After over two years of tests and observation, the Governor found that “Walton differs in fundamental ways from other death row offenders. He lives in a self-imposed state of isolation that includes virtually no interest in receiving or understanding information.” The Governor added, “While he was not insane at the time of his crimes, there are strong indications that his mental illness started prior to the murders." He also cited recent evidence of Walton's possible mental retardation. The Governor cited the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Ford v. Wainwright that “forbids the execution of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.”


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Severely Mentally Ill Death Row Inmate Resentenced to Life 27 Years After Crime

Richard Taylor, a death row inmate in Tennessee suffering from severe mental illness, was resentenced to life without the possibility of parole after a plea bargain with the state. Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of a prison guard in 1981 after the prison had stopped giving him his anti-psychotic medication. Deputy District Attorney Derek Smith said, “Our office decided that it would be in the best interest of the taxpayers to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to retry this case in other prosecutions.” According to one of his attorneys, Cassandra Stubbs of the ACLU, the correctional facility considered Taylor to be mentally ill, knew he had previously tried to kill himself by swallowing glass, but decided to stop giving him his psychiatric medication.


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NEW RESOURCES: Sentence Reversals in Mental Retardation Cases

Prof. John Blume of Cornell University Law School has compiled the cases in which an inmate's death sentence was reduced because of a finding of mental retardation. His research revealed 83 such reversals since 2002. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to defendants with mental retardation. The Court did not, however, establish a definition for mental retardation or determine the procedures for proving a claim of retardation. Some states have not yet passed legislation to determine this process. Litigation continues six years after the Atkins decision regarding the possible retardation of those on death row.

Prof. Blume's research includes the race and gender of the defendant and of the victims in the underlying murder, the existence of IQ scores where known, the limitations on daily functioning exhibited by the inmate, and the legal source supporting the finding of retardation.


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District Court Deems Scott Panetti Mentally Competent for Execution in Texas

U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks in Texas has ruled Scott Panetti mentally competent enough to be executed. Panetti’s earlier path to execution was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard his appeal in 2007 (Panetti v. Quarterman). The Court held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit had used too narrow a standard in deciding whether Panetti had an understanding of why he was to be executed. The Court also held that Texas had not given Panetti an adequate hearing to determine his competency. The U.S. Supreme Court has previously held that it is unconstitutional to execute someone who is insane (Ford v. Wainwright (1986)).


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Death Sentence and Conviction of Mentally Ill Tennessee Man Reversed

On March 7, 2008, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction and death sentence of Richard Taylor. The court's ruling grants Taylor a new trial due to a variety of constitutional errors at his original trial. These errors include the denial of his constitutional right to counsel at a pre-trial competency hearing, the failure of the trial court to hold a competency hearing during the trial, and the failure of the trial court to appoint advisory counsel. Taylor, who is severely mentally ill, was permitted to represent himself at trial with little questioning of his competency. At his 2003 trial, Taylor represented himself without advisory counsel and presented no evidence towards his defense.


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