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USA: New report on execution of mentally ill prisoners

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 decency� 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.�

Defendants with mental illnesses have conducted their own defences and have waived their rights to appeal and “volunteered� to be executed.

More than a quarter (28) of the 100 mentally ill prisoners executed since 1977 have “volunteered� 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 “circus�, a “joke� and a “mockery�. 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 “flat� or “unremorseful� 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 risk� 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:

  • Varnell Weeks, Alabama, 1995.

    Paranoid schizophrenia, hallucinations, delusions. Appeared at a competency hearing with a domino tied to string attached to his shaved head.

    Rambled about serpents, “cybernetics�, albinos, Egyptians, the Bible and reproduction. Thought he was God. Saw his execution as plot to destroy mankind.

    Believed he would not die but be transformed into a tortoise reigning over the universe. No evidence of mental illness heard at trial.

  • Juan Soria, Texas, 2000.

    History of self-mutilation, suicide attempts. Last words: “They say I’m going to have surgery, so I guess I will see everyone after the surgery is performed.�

  • Charles Singleton, Arkansas, 2004.

    Probable schizophrenia, psychotic symptoms. Mental condition deteriorated on death row. Delusions including belief that cell was possessed by demons, that a prison doctor had planted a device in his ear and that his thoughts were being stolen when he read the Bible.

    Believed that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in another universe trying to save him. Put on forced medical regime to control his condition for execution.

  • Johnny Garrett, Texas, 1992.

    Chronically psychotic and brain damaged. Described by a psychiatrist as “one of the most psychiatrically impaired inmates� she had ever examined.

    Frequently beaten by father and grandfather as a child. Raped by stepfather who hired him out for sex. Made to appear in pornographic films when 14.

    Believed his dead aunt would protect him from the lethal injection. Mental illness and sexual abuse history never heard by jury.

  • Ricky Ray Rector, Arkansas, 1992.

    Severely mentally impaired (amounting to frontal lobotomy) after shooting himself in the head on arrest.

  • Kevin Hocker, Alabama, 2004.

    Bipolar disorder, suicidal tendencies. Father had same condition and committed suicide when Hocker was eight.

    Mutilated himself on death row, including cutting off his own testicles. Jury never told of his condition or of childhood abuse.

  • Monty Delk, Texas, 2002.

    Bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Covered himself in faeces in his cell. Delusions included that he was a submarine captain, a CIA or FBI agent, or a member of the military.

    At post-conviction hearings shouted gibberish and obscenities. Was still doing the same when strapped to the gurney for execution.

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.�

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