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NAMI Advocates for Abolishing Death Penalty for People with Severe Illnesses

Contributor: Laura Usher

In San Antonio, Texas, this month, Murder Victims Families for Human Rights and NAMI announced their collaboration on a project to abolish the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. The project will include a national media campaign and the release of a report in June of 2009.    The report will be used to support efforts in states to enact laws prohibiting executions of people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. 

Murder Victim’s Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) is an advocacy group of family members of people who have been murdered and family members of people who have been executed that works to oppose the death penalty. MVFHR opposes the death penalty on the grounds that it is a human rights violation.  For more information about MVFHR and its activities, go to the MVFHR website.

NAMI’s grassroots membership is diverse and individual members undoubtedly differ in their views about the death penalty generally.  However, NAMI has clear policy opposing the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses.  This policy and its rationale can be found in Section 10.9 of NAMI’s public policy platform.  

At the press conference, several family members spoke and told very moving and poignant stories. Bill Babbitt told the story of his brother, who was a decorated Vietnam veteran who had PTSD and schizophrenia; charged with killing a 78-year-old woman, he was convicted and executed. Lois Robison told the story of her son, who was prematurely discharged from the hospital when their insurance ran out. She was told that he could not be committed unless he became violent. He killed five people and was executed.  Families of victims spoke passionately as well in support of abolishing the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses, including Kim Crespi of North Carolina whose twin daughters were killed by her husband and Amanda and Nick Wilcox of California, whose daughter Laura was killed by a man with schizophrenia experiencing a psychotic episode. 

In his statement at the press conference, Ron Honberg, NAMI’s Director of Policy and Legal Affairs, explained that perceptions of violence linked with mental illness can perpetuate stigma and discrimination and emphasized that "it is important to say right up front that most people with severe mental illnesses are not violent."   However, Honberg acknowledged that acts of violence do occur and the people who commit them are frequently perceived as "monsters, with no redeeming qualities," rather than people whose actions "were responses to overwhelming delusions and hallucinations – such as voices that they were powerless to resist, commanding them to act in ways they never would have had they been in their right minds."  In fact, studies suggest that defendants with severe mental illnesses who commit capital crimes are more likely to be sentenced to death than those without mental illnesses convicted of similar crimes.  To read Honberg’s complete statement, click here.  

This project comes after recent Supreme Court decisions that banned as unconstitutional the executions of people with intellectual disabilities, Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and juveniles, Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).   These decisions were handed down after a number of states enacted legislation eliminating the death penalty for these classes of persons. 

The goal of this project is to support similar efforts focused on severe mental illness.   Already, legislation has been introduced in several states, Indiana and North Carolina, to eliminate the death penalty for certain categories of mental illnesses.  And, the American Bar Association, in concert with the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, NAMI and other organizations, passed a resolution calling on states to pass legislation eliminating the death penalty for people with "severe mental disorders or disabilities."  A copy of this resolution can be found on the ABA website.

Editor’s note: While NAMI advocates for federal and state legislation that decreases criminalization of people with serious mental illness, promotes jail diversion programs, and occasionally participates on a legal case with the potential to set a national legal precedent, we are unable to provide legal counsel on individual cases. We do have a lawyer referral network, and would be happy to try to help you locate a lawyer in your community. For a lawyer referral, contact the NAMI National Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI or