Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

As a matter of fact the number of people with mental health disabilities on death row is growing dramatically. According to a mental health group Mental Health America and the National Association of Mental Health five to ten per cent of people sentenced to death are severely mentally ill. However, the issue remains more complex than it may seem as identifying those have mental health condition and those who do not is a challenge for modern state fact-finding system. Joseph Green Brown, a death row survivor, claimed: “When a society starts killing its children, something is wrong, something is deadly wrong”. Though capital punishment imposed on mentally-ill people is obviously cruel, it is still hard to define the related concepts like mental illness, mental retardation, intellectual disability, insanity etc and therefore what kind of mental illness enables a human to be exempted from death penalty. The execution of the severely mentally ill goes on in the country. History gives us the examples of Pernell Ford, Kelsey Patterson, Manny Babbitt to mention just a few.

Mental illness is defined in a dozen of ways. It is relevant to many important legal questions such as police interrogation, competency to stand trial, insanity, mitigation, ability to form criminal intent as well as a number of additional issues at capital trials. No wonder that the states have manifested variability in the procedures for determining the extent of mental retardation by conducting the interviews and tests, observing a defendant and gathering the information, to make maters worse, there is no certain definition of mental retardation and assessment of core deficits of a defendant (Appelbaum). Both the American Association of Mental Retardation and the American Psychiatric Association proposed their definitions of mental retardation (Tabak). In 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia the US Supreme Court found the execution of defendants with mental disabilities violated the Eight Amendment (Tabak). The ABA considered that people with severe mental disability at the time of the offense are not as culpable as the average murder. And these disabilities include the most common disorders like schizophrenia and mania.

The execution of people with mental disabilities is prohibited by international law and UN Commission on Human Rights initiated all states to maintain the death penalty “not to impose it on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder” and not to execute him. According to “Capital Punishment and Mental Illness” the plea and verdict of guilty but those with mental disability were introduced in Michigan in 1975, then eleven states supported that by statute. In 1989 the execution of persons with mental retardation was considered acceptable and only two states at the time banned death penalty for those with mental illnesses.

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