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January 31, 2006

Amnesty International’s Report on The Death Penalty and Serious Mental Illness

Statement of Michael J. Fitzpatrick
Executive Director, National Alliance on Mental Illness

Amnesty International’s report today on people with serious mental illnesses and the death penalty represents a compelling step forward in making the case that profound injustice exists at the most painful intersection of the mental healthcare and criminal justice systems in America.

NAMI opposes the death penalty for people with serious mental illnesses. The law has not kept pace with modern science. The criminal justice system is ill-suited to address biologically-based brain disorders that create illogical, confused patterns of thought.

Juries are called upon to apply narrow, irrelevant legal definitions to people who do not fit those terms. The law tries to paint bright lines between right and wrong in order to evaluate psychosis, delusions, and hallucinations.  The death penalty poses issues that typically are never considered:

  • Stigma - the fear, ignorance, and prejudice - surrounding mental illness may influence jury decisions. Mental illness becomes an aggravating, rather than mitigating factor.
  • Defendants with serious mental illnesses during trial may appear impassive, because of the effects of psychiatric medications. Juries wrongly interpret their demeanor as lack of remorse.
  • As noted by President Bush's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, the mental healthcare system in America is a fragmented "system in shambles." Barriers to care exist. Individuals with serious mental illness often are unable to get help.  Treatment or interventions may be inadequate, including long waiting lists or early discharge from hospitalization.
  • In supreme irony, defendants denied medical treatment before committing crimes may be forcibly medicated to make them competent to stand trial or be executed. States make people who are profoundly sick - through no fault of their own - marginally well for the sole purpose of putting them to death.

NAMI congratulates and thanks Amnesty International for its contribution to this growing debate.

We call on state legislatures to eliminate the death penalty in such cases.

We also believe the U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately rule its application to people with serious mental illness unconstitutional.

For Copy of Amnesty International Report:  

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