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Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: A New Book, A New Case

January 2007

John Grisham has written 18 best-selling novels. The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town is his first work of non-fiction and focuses on a case in which a mentally ill man, Ron William, spends 20 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.

It comes at a time when, on January 5, 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a man with schizophrenia in Texas in order to set standard for determining when mental illness is so severe that execution is unconstitutional—a case in which NAMI has filed a "friend of the court" brief  on the issue (See below).

Grisham's focus is less about standards of mental illness than making a case that the criminal justice system is so inherently vulnerable and flawed that the death penalty is inherently wrong. He is passionate in presenting a case that "not in my most creative moment could I have conjured up." It has all the plot elements of an American tragedy.

Ron Williamson, a major league baseball draft pick from Oklahoma is signed with the Oakland As in 1971 and later traded to the Yankees for the minor league reserves. But after six years, he returns home, with broken dreams. He develops schizophrenia.

Unable to keep a job, Williamson moved in with his mother and slept 20 hours a day. Local police, seeking to solve a rape and murder case focused on him. "He certainly seemed suspicious," Grisham notes. "He acted strange, kept strange hours…and most damning of all, lived close to the murder scene."

During his trial, Williamson's jailers "fine-tuned" his condition with Thorazine. When he was in his cell and they wanted peace, "they pumped him full." Other times, they reduced the dose so that he would appear more intense, loud, and belligerent when he was in court. His court-appointed lawyer, who was blind and working alone, was afraid of him, sitting as far away as possible

Although innocent, Williamson was convicted—based on bad police work, bad science, faulty eyewitness identification, and an arrogant prosecutor. Along with lazy lawyers and bad lawyers, Grisham notes, these are the ingredients for countless wrongful convictions.

Even when appeals succeed, the cost is steep—in time and money, on both sides, and on the life of the defendant.

Williamson spent 20 years on death row, before his conviction was overturned. While in prison, his mental condition deteriorated, and the book is notable for its description of how he was treated. Guards would amuse themselves at night by pretending to be voices, sending him into a frenzy.

As sick as he was, Willamson never wavered in his protest that he was innocent. Once acquitted, after a new trial, he exhibited remarkable grace and dignity, even forgiveness, refusing to dwell on the past.

After his release from prison in 1999, Williamson was interviewed on Good Morning America and treated as a celebrity in New York City. He toured Yankee Stadium, where he had once hoped to play. Standing in awe on the field, he said: "All I ever wanted to do was play baseball. It's the only fun I've ever had."

In the case of Panetti v. Quarterman, which the Supreme Court accepted this month for argument, the facts are different and harsher. No one challenges the facts that Texas inmate Scott Panetti fatally shot his in-laws in front of his estranged wife and three-year old child in 1992. The Navy veteran, however, had been hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia. Nonetheless, he was found both competent to stand trial and to represent himself instead of through a lawyer.

During the trial, Panetti was often incoherent. He tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II, and President John F. Kennedy as witnesses. Although he understands that he is sentenced to be executed, he believes it is largely because the state is trying to keep him from preaching the gospel.

Under a 1986 Supreme Court opinion, execution of mentally ill persons is constitutionally prohibited as cruel and inhuman punishment—but only under a narrow "awareness test" in which defendants need to be able to understand "the punishment they are about to suffer" and "why they are to suffer it."

NAMI's brief in the case argues that the test "makes no sense when applied to a prisoner who is plagued by delusions of grand prosecution."

More broadly, Grisham believes such cases should shock, disturb, and infuriate anyone who maintains faith in the criminal justice system and the death penalty. The Innocent Man is worth reading as a test.

Order The Innocent Man through this link to  and NAMI will receive a portion of the sale price, at no cost to you.

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