States Continue to Execute Convicts with Serious Mental Health Illnesses

 /  March 9, 2015, 10:51 p.m.


It seems logical that the mentally ill should be exempt from the death penalty. After all, mental illness can be serious enough to cause a person to break from reality, as is the case with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The insane can be exempt from the death penalty under federal law, but severe mental illness is not that easy to diagnose. Doctors must use their discretion to determine the competency of a defendant. This is a difficult method of diagnosis because doctors can come to different conclusions for the same patient. While guidelines exist for diagnosing mental illness, there is currently no law that defines mental illness in a concrete way. This is a big problem when it comes to prosecuting defendants with mental illness for capital crimes.

A 1986 Supreme Court ruling determined that the insane are not competent enough to be subject to the death penalty. While the ruling expands protections for the mentally ill, it was ultimately left to the states to determine whether a defendant is mentally competent. Texas has notoriously exploited the ambiguity of the ruling by narrowly defining what can be considered mental illness.

Cut and dry diagnostic techniques do not exist for mental illness; therefore it is entirely possible that two very credible and experienced doctors could diagnose the same mentally ill defendant quite differently. This should not deter legislators; in fact, it should incentivize them to create a uniform definition of mental illness for the country as a whole.

In order to be exempt from capital punishment, the defendant must be considered clinically insane. That is, completely dissociated from reality. Lapses in cognition are often experienced by those suffering from mental illness. This does not immediately qualify a defendant to be considered clinically insane and therefore exempt from execution. It is important that parameters be set in the diagnosis of mental illness to prevent those who are too incompetent from facing capital punishment.

More than sixty people who had mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, have been executed since 1983. That accounts for at least four percent of the 1,396 executions in the United States during this time frame. While mental illnesses can be taken into consideration during a trial and sentencing hearing, they do not disqualify a person from the most severe form of punishment, the death penalty.

Why is the government killing people who suffer from serious psychological disorders for crimes when they should be treated in a mental institution?

In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a statute that outlawed executions of the insane in Ford v. Wainwright. However, the ruling left it up to the states to define mental insanity. In order to determine a defendant's mental state, psychiatrists conduct competency hearings and administer psychological evaluations. According to the 1986 ruling, it is illegal to execute the clinically insane because they are not able to comprehend the gravity of the situation and the purpose of the punishment. This ruling does not specify what exactly qualifies as insanity, which is a serious problem. Despite lapses in cognition stemming from mental illness, a defendant is still subject to the court’s determination of his competency and ability to understand the effects of the trial and execution.

Mental illness is difficult to diagnose correctly because varying degrees of illness exist. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that nearly sixty million Americans suffer from mental health conditions yearly, but only six percent of the population suffer from serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Additionally, more than half of those who suffer from one mental illness fit the criteria for others as well. Despite the NAMI guidelines, a clinical evaluation is still subject to the doctor’s interpretation. The professional opinions of doctors do not always match up, even when evaluating the same patient. When it comes time to prosecute a defendant, is it justifiable to seek the death penalty for someone when one or multiple mental illnesses plague their everyday judgments and actions?

The question of how to distinguish a mental illness from clinical insanity is difficult to answer. Because there is not currently a cut and dry scientific test for mental illness, it falls to the credibility of the prosecution, the defense, and their expert witnesses to sway the jury their way. The NAMI’s guidelines provide basic parameters for diagnosing mental illnesses, but the decision is ultimately at the discretion of the doctor who evaluates the patient.

One case in particular illustrates the difficulty of determining mental illness and protecting the insane, while still seeking justice for victims. Texan Andre Thomas had suffered from undiagnosed and untreated mental illness (later discovered to be schizophrenia) from the time he was a teenager. As an adult, he turned himself in to the police in 2005 after he brutally murdered his ex-wife and her two children, in addition to attempting suicide, because he believed that God wanted him to extricate the demons. Once in custody, he exhibited signs of severe delusion and gouged out his own eye after interpreting the Bible literally.

Before the trial, three different doctors diagnosed Thomas with schizophrenia. He was sent to a state facility where he was required to wear mittens in an attempt to prevent further self-harm. After just forty-seven days of treatment he was deemed competent to stand trial. His defense attorneys asserted that Thomas’s severe mental illness disqualified him from capital punishment and brought in doctors to testify to that effect. However, the prosecutor in the case argued that abuse of illicit substances was the cause of the brutal murder. A doctor provided testimony directly contradicting that of the defense, insisting that Thomas was exaggerating his condition to avoid capital punishment. Jurors sided with the prosecution and sentenced Thomas to be executed.

It is hard to fault the jurors in a case such as this, where contradictory testimony is provided by experts of seemingly equal caliber. That is the trouble with diagnosing mental illness. As the case of Andre Thomas demonstrates, the lack of clinical consensus around the right diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses can lead to opposing interpretations by doctors.

There is no doubt that a man as tortured by mental illness as Thomas should be exempt from the death penalty. But our criminal justice system did condemn him to death. How is this possible?

Texas is notoriously strict in its determination of what constitutes mental illness and competency to stand trial. Of Texas’s 290 inmates on death row, more than twenty percent have been diagnosed with a mental illness, which is five times the national average.

To the prosecution’s credit, the brutal stabbing of a woman and two small children is a vile crime. However, what is the merit of execution when the man who committed the crime is unable to comprehend the punishment given?

If a person suffers from mental illness with such severity that he often breaks from reality, as in the case of Andre Thomas, the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment, outlawed by the eighth amendment. Thomas’s schizophrenia prevents him from understanding the severity of his punishment, which should disqualify him from the death penalty under the 1986 Supreme Court ruling.

The argument for the death penalty is extremely weak. It would seem that life in prison or in a treatment facility would prevent Thomas from committing any future crimes. The death penalty as a mode of deterrence is equally illogical. A New York State study found that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent for those intent on committing murder. The study states that in order for a punishment to be effective, it must be “prompt and certain,” of which the death penalty is neither. Even if the punishment were prompt and certain, the mentally ill cannot be deterred under threat of the death penalty because they are detached from reality.

Six states have outlawed the death penalty in the past ten years, having concluded that even the competent do not deserve to suffer at the hands of state-sponsored execution. If healthy, sound-minded criminals deserve better than the death penalty, according to New York, why would a criminal suffering from mental illness deserve to die for their actions? This is the question each state has been charged with answering since the 1986 Supreme Court ruling. In the case of Andre Thomas, the argument could be made that Texas’s handling of mental competency was poor at best.

Because of the difficulties stemming from the ambiguity of mental illness, it is necessary for more specific parameters to be instated. Definitions must be provided for the states so that cases like Thomas’s don’t happen again. If the option of trying a capital case is taken away, those who suffer from mental illness can get the treatment they so desperately need.

Haley Schwab


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