Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

By the end of the twentieth century eighteen US states prohibited the executions of mentally-impaired people. Since then on, there were many attempts to abolish death penalty all over the world. Pope John Paul II called for a moratorium on the death penalty use. In April of 2000 about two million people signed the petition dealing with death penalty abolition. Sr. Helen Prejean commented on the significance of the moratorium: “Peace always comes in steps and the first step is to cease and desist from killing which, of course, is a moratorium”. Jemie Fellner, an Associate Counsel at Human Rights Watch, also defended those with mental impairments on death row by saying that executing adults with the minds of children is barbaric. She called upon for setting this senseless cruelty right. However, even today a few countries having dictatorships and theocracies allow the practice (Heasley). True, execution of someone who does not realize the reasons and the punishment itself violates the US Constitution. Paradoxically a great number of prisoners with mental illnesses have been already executed in the state.

Currently Mental Health America calls upon states to stop capital punishment until “more just, accurate and systematic ways of determining guilt” are contrived. According to Position Statement 54: Death Penalty and People with Mental Illnesses defendants should not be executed if at the time of the offense “they had a severe mental disorder or disability” that impaired the capability “to exercise rational judgment”, “to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law”. They should not also be executed if defendants had significant limitations in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. And a defendant should be competent at all phases of capital punishment execution.

The assessment of the competency should not be made by one specialist but a multi-disciplinary team of competent experts. Moreover, MHA raises objections aimed at making them competent to stand trial. MHA research demonstrates the greater likelihood of African-Americans being put on death row.

In accordance with the recent report “Double Tragedies: Mental Illness and the Death Penalty” (2009) the state should join efforts of its citizens to treat and prevent instead of executing. The report recommends that death penalty should be banned for defendants with severe mental retardations, mental health care system should be reformed and the needs of the victim families as well as the families of murders should be considered. The report is predominantly grounded on the interviews of the family members and families of defendants with mental impairments who have not escaped the death row. They claim that violent crime begins where the mental health system goes wrong and lead to an irreversible tragedy.

The issue on capital punishment of defendants who are mentally disabled remains controversial and dependent on many variables causing complexities in mental condition investigation and mental state assessment. Truly, the challenges concerning a clinical determination may have life-to-death consequences for defendants on the death row.

The crimes committed by those suffering from mental retardation are as serious as the crimes committed buy competent murders, but defendants with mental retardation are to be treated more tolerantly, as “they are incapable of fully comprehending either the nature of their crimes or the nature of their punishment” (Heasley). And we should not forget that though we delegate our rights to the state for it to protect them, it has responsibility to protect the most precious thing a human-being possesses, that is the life.

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