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Prevention, Not Execution: Eliminating the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness
Contributor: Ron Honberg
In 1999, Manny Babbitt, a decorated Vietnam veteran diagnosed with schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder, was executed at San Quentin Prison in California after having been convicted of murder. Manny’s brother Bill, who turned Manny in to the authorities after being promised that the state would not pursue the death penalty, has become a staunch advocate against the death penalty.
In 1998, Linda Gregory’s husband, Gene, was shot and killed while responding to a call to assist a man with paranoid schizophrenia who had barricaded himself in his residence with an arsenal of weapons. Since then, Linda has become a leading advocate for better mental health services in Florida.
These extraordinary individuals joined many others in San Antonio in October 2008 to begin an unprecedented conversation about whether persons with severe mental illnesses should be exempt from capital punishment. The participating families discovered that they had much in common. Whether families of homicide victims or families of people who had been executed, they all shared common frustrations about problems in the mental health system and common beliefs that executing individuals with severe mental illnesses only compounded tragedies.
The meeting in San Antonio was organized by Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), an international organization of relatives of homicide victims and relatives of people who have been executed, all of whom oppose the death penalty. NAMI has also long opposed the execution of people with severe mental illnesses. Recognizing a commonality of interests, MVFHR Executive Director Renny Cushing conceived the idea of this project and approached NAMI about becoming a partner – to which NAMI agreed.
MVFHR and NAMI have released a report giving voice to the shared concerns of the participants in the San Antonio meeting. Entitled Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness, the report calls the death penalty "inappropriate and unwarranted" for people with severe mental illnesses and "a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly led to tragic violence."
The report is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The families represented in these interviews fall into one of two categories: families of victims of homicides at the hands of a person with a severe mental illness, or families of persons with severe mental illnesses who have been convicted of homicides and executed. In certain cases, the person who committed the homicide and the victim of the homicide were related.
Most state laws list "mental disease and defects" or some variant of this term as a factor that should mitigate against the death penalty. However, studies suggest that defendants with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of similar crimes without mental illnesses. At least 100 people with mental illness have been executed in the United States and hundreds more are currently on death row awaiting execution.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities (mental retardation) is unconstitutional and in 2005, the Court further ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people whose crimes were committed when they were juveniles. The Court’s rulings in both cases was based on its concern that factors such as impaired judgment, understanding and impulse-control reduce the level of culpability in cases involving defendants with intellectual disabilities or juveniles and, therefore, do not justify the most extreme penalty of death. These factors also frequently apply as well in capital cases involving severe mental illnesses—raising serious questions about whether the death penalty should be similarly banned for defendants with these illnesses.
Though the Double Tragedies report describes horrendously violent acts, it is important to recognize that most people with mental illnesses are not violent. When violent crimes do occur, they are exceptional and usually indicate that something has gone terribly wrong, often times within the mental health care system. Treatment and supportive services are the best way to prevent these acts from occurring.
The report makes four basic recommendations:
1. The death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses should be banned. Currently, legislation is pending in at least four states to limit or eliminate the execution of people with severe mental illnesses. Only Connecticut has a law on the books limiting capital punishment for individuals with "significantly impaired mental capacity," but that law is seldom used.
2. Mental health systems need to be reformed to more effectively provide treatment and supportive services to individuals with severe mental illnesses before they reach the point of crisis. NAMI’s Grading the States 2009 report contains a number of recommendations for improving mental health systems and services, including strategies for responding effectively to individuals with severe mental illnesses who are most at risk and have difficulty adhering to treatment regimens.
3. Recognize the needs of families of murder victims through rights to information and participation in criminal and mental health proceedings.
4. Recognize families of individuals who are executed as victims and provide assistance to these families due to any victims of traumatic loss.
Lois and Ken Robison of Texas became activists against the death penalty after their son Larry, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was executed in 2000. Lois and Ken struggled for years to get help for their son prior to the crimes that led to his execution. At the meeting in San Antonio, Lois posed the question, "How can a modern, civilized society choose to exterminate its mentally ill citizens rather than treat them? I’ve been waiting 25 years…for people to come together and say that the death penalty is not the answer to the problem of untreated mental illness in our country."
We hope that the Double Tragedies report is the start of this process.
Double Tragedies is available at www.nami.org/doubletragedies. A limited number of hard copies can be obtained by contacting Susannah Sheffer at Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.
Grading the States2009is available at www.nami.org/grades09
Visit the Murder Victims Families for Human Rights website.
For more information about the death penalty and persons with mental illness, visit the NAMI website.