USA: New report on execution of mentally ill prisoners
Posted: 31 January 2006
One in ten of USA's 30-year capital punishment death toll were mentally ill.
Hundreds of mentally ill prisoners face execution in the USA, said Amnesty International today (Tuesday 31 January), as it published a major new report cataloguing the extent of capital punishment amongst those with mental illness in the country.
The report shows that one in ten of the USA's 1,000-plus executed prisoners in the last 30 years suffered from mental illness. Meanwhile an estimated 10% of the present death row population of 3,400 prisoners is believed to be mentally ill.
While recent landmark legal rulings have made it unconstitutional in the USA to impose a death sentence on those with learning disabilities or on child offenders, the penalty is still being applied to those with conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, brain damage and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Courts in the US have ruled that "evolving standards of decencyâ€? have made the execution of child offenders and those with learning disabilities unlawful, but meanwhile continue to allow those with severe mental conditions to stand trial and receive death sentences.
Only one state (Connecticut) currently outlaws the execution of a prisoner on the grounds that s/he was mentally ill at the time of the crime
Amnesty International UK Media Director Mike Blakemore said:
"Amnesty International is opposed to the death penalty in all cases but imposing it on the mentally ill is truly disgraceful. Equally disgraceful is the forced medication of those that develop mental illness on death row precisely so that they can be executed.
"As President George Bush prepares to give the annual State of the Union Address today we appeal to him to use his powers to end the execution of mentally ill prisoners in the USA.â€?
Defendants with mental illnesses have conducted their own defences and have waived their rights to appeal and "volunteeredâ€? to be executed.
More than a quarter (28) of the 100 mentally ill prisoners executed since 1977 have "volunteeredâ€? to die, in some cases because they had clearly despaired of receiving treatment for their condition. The same number were Vietnam veterans, many suffering from PTSD.
In one case a murder defendant in Texas in 1995, Scott Panetti, attempted to conduct his own defence despite a long history of mental illness, including schizophrenia and at least a dozen hospitalisations.
He dressed as cowboy in the courtroom and mounted a rambling and chaotic defence described by witnesses as a "circusâ€?, a "jokeâ€? and a "mockeryâ€?. He was nevertheless sentenced to death and remains on death row.
While many trial courts never hear any evidence of mental illness, Amnesty International's report also shows that US prosecutors can exploit public ignorance or fear regarding mental illness by arguing that the "flatâ€? or "unremorsefulâ€? demeanour of mentally ill defendants should be considered further grounds for imposing death sentences.
Some mentally ill defendants may also receive death sentences because jurors believe that they are a "future riskâ€? or that they are especially dangerous. Others conduct their own defence in a fashion highly prejudicial to their own fair trial interests.
Amnesty International's 180-page report lists all 100 past cases of execution of mentally ill prisoners since 1977, including:
Mike Blakemore added:
"In case after case defendants have been sentenced to death in US courts without jurors or judges hearing evidence of severe mental illness.
"Prisoners who should never have stood trial on grounds of mental incompetence have nevertheless done so and have gone to their deaths essentially unaware of what was being done to them.â€?