Mental Illness And The Death Penalty
The ABA’s Florida death penalty assessment team, headed up by Chris Slobogin of the University of Florida, has released its report on the state’s capital scheme. Unlike the Alabama team, this group did not endorse a moratorium in the state. It did, however, raise a number of concerns including (among others): the large number of exonerations, inadequate compensation for conflict counsel, racial and geographic disparities, and the large number of people with mental disability on death row.
Although we did not address this at length in the Alabama report, my experience suggests that a shocking portion of people on death row have some mental illness. I suspect that many people would be troubled to learn the degree to which death rows warehouse people with mental disabilities. There has been relatively little empirical work on this question, though a recent study prepared by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed that 55% of male inmates in state prisons, and 44% of men in federal pens, have mental health problems. I feel pretty confident that death row inmates ore no less than typical on this front, and probably disproportionately evidence mental health problems. It is possible that these problems are the product of imprisonment itself – SuperMax prisons, for example, are brutal – but there is certainly research suggesting that most folks on death row have a pre-existing history of either mental illness, mental retardation, or brain injuries.
There are a several issues involved in the execution of people with mental illness. First, there are the moral questions. Is it fair to execute a person who makes decisions under the influence of brain illness or damage? Can such acts, no matter how heinous, ever carry sufficient moral culpability support death? A separate issue, for those who oppose abortion on the grounds of a predictable disability and simultaneously support the death penalty, is whether one can later support execution of a person whose behavior results, at least in part, from a disability that would not have justified abortion. If a person maintains these two positions, is she essentially arguing that the offender is allowed to be born on the chance that the disability will not result in a killing? But what if future research shows that particular disabilities are high predictors of future violence. Would a “death sentence” for the fetus then be justified?
There are also separate issues of the sort previously raised by the Court. Can a mentally ill person really assist counsel? Does execution of mentally ill people serve the purposes of punishment
Then there is the human rights issue. Does allowing execution of mentally ill people undermine our credibility as human rights activists around the world?
Some people will argue that these judgments are properly left to juries as they weigh aggravating and mitigating factors. Perhaps. As long as we have capital punishment, someone will have to make these tough calls at some stage – and I don’t have any more faith in judges than twelve citizens. But the only way a jury can make a fair judgment is if the defendant’s counsel effectively investigates and presents relevant facts. Sadly, based on recent ABA reports (such as the one from Alabama), too many defense lawyers aren’t up to the task. And that makes it awfully hard for juries to do their job properly.