Mental Illness

Virginia Senate Passes Bill to Bar the Death Penalty for Severely Mentally Ill Offenders

By a vote of 23-17, the Virginia State Senate has approved a bill that, if enacted, would ban capital punishment for defendants with severe mental illness. With the support of all nineteen Democratic senators and four Republicans, the bill passed the GOP-controlled Senate on January 17, 2019. It now moves on to the Commonwealth’s House of Delegates, which is comprised of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats.  

SB 1137 defines severe mental illness as “active psychotic symptoms that substantially impair a person’s capacity to (i) appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct; (ii) exercise rational judgment in relation to the person’s conduct; or (iii) conform the person’s conduct to the requirements of the law.”However, the bill excludes disorders that are “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or any drug.”Under the proposal, the determination of severe mental illness would be made in the sentencing phase of trial, after the defendant already has been convicted. The jury (or the judge, if the defendant waives the right to a jury trial) would decide if the defendant has proven “by a preponderance of the evidence” that he or she was severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. A defendant found to be severely mentally ill would be sentenced to life without parole. The bill also provides for indigent defendants with mental illness claims to receive assistance from a mental health expert appointed by the court. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Barbara Favola (D – Arlington), called the proposal “a vehicle for us to administer justice in a way that’s humane and, I would say, in a way that reflects the values of Virginians.” Sen. Scott Surovell (D – Fairfax), said the mental illness exemption would have limited impact in Virginia because of the decline in death sentences across the state, but was a necessary mental-health reform. “The reality is we have a broken mental health system in this country,” he said. “We have a broken mental health system in this state. We don’t give it enough money.” Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw (D – Fairfax), who called himself “a pretty strong proponent of capital punishment,” supported the bill, saying that, when it comes to defendants who are severely mentally ill, “probably we ought to think twice.”

Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out since 1976, but it has had a sharp decline in the use of the death penalty in recent years. No one has been sentenced to death in Virginia since 2011, and just two men remain on the state’s death row. In July 2017, lawyers for William Morva, a seriously mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from a delusional disorder that his lawyers said left him unable to distinguish his delusions from reality, unsuccessfully sought a commutation from Governor Terry McAuliffe. Previously, Governors James Gilmore and Timothy Kaine commuted the death sentences of Calvin Swann and Percy Walton, citing concerns about serious mental illness. Other states are also considering legislation that would ban the death penalty for seriously mentally ill defendants. In 2017, bills were introduced in seven states, including Virginia, calling for such measures. The American Bar Association in 2016 issued a white paper in support of a mental-illness exemption.

Supreme Court Lets Death Sentence Stand for Prisoner Whose Attorney Presented No Mitigating Evidence

Over a sharp dissent by three justices, the United States Supreme Court has let stand the death sentence imposed on a Georgia prisoner who was suffering from dementia, brain damage, and borderline intellectual functioning, but whose trial lawyer failed to present any mitigating evidence. On January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed on behalf of death-row prisoner Donnie Cleveland Lance seeking the Court’s review of the Georgia Supreme Court's denial of relief in his case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor – joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan – dissented, writing that “the Court’s refusal to intervene permits an egregious breakdown of basic procedural safeguards to go unremedied.”

Lance was sentenced to death by a Georgia court for the 1997 murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Lance’s trial lawyer – a solo practitioner who was convinced he could persuade the jury of Lance’s innocence – asked the trial court to appoint a second lawyer to handle any potential penalty phase. The court denied that request and also denied a defense motion for funds to retain expert witnesses to challenge the range of experts hired by the prosecution in the case. After the court denied his motions, Lance’s lawyer conducted no penalty-phase investigation and did nothing to prepare for the penalty phase. Following Lance’s conviction, counsel made no penalty-phase opening statement, called no witnesses, and presented no mitigating evidence. In his cursory closing argument, counsel asked the jury to think of Lance’s family and to not seek vengeance. 

New counsel represented Lance in his state post-conviction proceedings and presented extensive evidence of Lance’s serious cognitive impairments. Four mental health experts agreed that Lance had brain damage in his frontal lobe, that his IQ was on the borderline for intellectual disability, and that he suffered from clinical dementia. While the three defense experts agreed that Lance’s brain damage significantly impaired his ability to control his impulses and conform his conduct to the law, the state’s expert disagreed about the extent of his impairment. The trial court overturned Lance’s death sentence, ruling that counsel had provided ineffective representation. However, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed, holding that while counsel’s performance was deficient, the presentation of mitigating evidence would have been futile given the facts of the murder. On federal habeas corpus review, the Georgia federal courts ruled that the Georgia Supreme Court had not unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent when it upheld Lance’s death sentence.

The three-justice dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to intervene argued that the Georgia Supreme Court decision was “an objectively unreasonable application” of U.S. Supreme Court precedent and had “mischaracterized or omitted key facts and improperly weighed the evidence.” The evidence of Lance’s “‘serious’ and ‘significant’” mental impairments, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “reasonably could have affected at least one juror’s assessment of whether Lance deserved to die for his crimes, and Lance should have been given a chance to make the case for his life.” Instead, she said, “Lance may well be executed without any adequately informed jury having decided his fate.”

Tennessee Executes Mentally Ill and Sexually Abused Prisoner by Electrocution

Tennessee executed David Earl Miller (pictured at age 24) in the state’s electric chair on December 6, 2018, after Governor Bill Haslam denied his application for clemency and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to address the denials of his challenges to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s execution methods. Miller, a 61-year-old man with a significant history of mental illness who experienced extensive sexual and physical abuse as a child, opted to be executed by electric chair after the Tennessee Supreme Court denied other prisoners’ challenges to a three-drug lethal-injection process that Miller and his lawyers believed would result in an extended torturous death.

The Tennessee prisoners challenged the state’s three-drug lethal-injection process, seeking to replace it with execution with a single barbiturate, pentobarbital. Miller presented evidence that the three-drug protocol would result in approximately 18 minutes of unnecessary pain and suffering. He submitted an affidavit from one of the nation’s leading anesthesiologists that Billy Ray Irick “was aware and sensate” during his lethal-injection execution on October 11, 2018 “and would have experienced the feeling of choking, drowning in his own fluids, suffocating, being buried alive, and the burning sensation caused by the injection of the potassium chloride.” The prisoners’ challenge was rejected because Miller—prevented from obtaining critical information by Tennessee’s execution secrecy law—was unable to show that pentobarbital was readily available to the state. Miller elected to be executed in the electric chair, but argued that his choice of electrocution instead of lethal injection was coerced and that both methods were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual. The lower courts ruled that Miller had waived his challenge to constitutionality of the electric chair by choosing it over lethal injection, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that “electrocution can be a dreadful way to die,” but there was “credible scientific evidence that lethal injection as currently practiced in Tennessee may well be even worse.” It was “perverse,” she said, to require prisoners to prove that an alternative method was available to kill them. “Such madness should not continue.”

Miller was charged with murdering his intellectually-disabled girlfriend, Lee Standifer, in May 1981. He was 24 years old at the time. Miller’s attorneys submitted an 89-page clemency petition to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam detailing Miller’s upbringing and childhood abuse, including an instance in which Miller’s stepfather “knocked [Miller] out of a chair, hit him with a board, threw him into a refrigerator with such force it dented the refrigerator and bloodied [Miller’s] head, dragged him through the house by his hair, and twice ran [Miller’s] head through the wall.” Miller’s mother, who drank heavily while he was in utero, sexually abused Miller and forced him to have sex with her on at least three occasions. The document also noted that Miller attempted suicide two times before age ten. Governor Haslam denied the petition with a one-sentence statement: “After careful consideration of David Earl Miller’s clemency request, I am declining to intervene in this case.”

Following the execution, Miller’s lawyer Steve Kissinger said: “If any of you have been reading what we've been submitting to the governor, what we have been sending to the courts for the last 20 years you'll know that he cared deeply for Lee Standifer and she would be alive today if it weren't for a sadistic stepfather and a mother who violated every trust that a son should have. I came up here promising to tell you what we did here today, but I think maybe what I should be doing is ask you all that question. What is it that we did here today?”

Miller is the second death-row prisoner to be executed by electrocution in Tennessee this year. Edmund Zagorski, executed by electrocution on November 1, 2018, was the first. Miller’s last words were “beats being on death row.”

A Veterans Day Review: Recent Cases Highlight Concerns About Veterans and the Death Penalty

As Americans become increasingly aware of the role of combat trauma in the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health disorders, the shift in public perceptions towards veterans suffering from these disorders has played out in the courts in recent death penalty cases. In 2018, at least four military veterans facing death sentences have instead been sentenced to life in prison, and another two veterans won relief in their death-penalty cases. One military veteran has been executed so far this year.

In January, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) wrote in support of exempting mentally ill veterans from capital punishment, saying, "we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. ...[W]e can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness." Prosecutors and juries in Indiana, Florida, Colorado, and Virginia have considered the military service and service-related disorders of murder defendants and determined that life sentences were more appropriate than the death penalty. In the Virginia trial of Iraq war veteran Ronald Hamilton, his attorneys presented evidence that he had been a model soldier who had saved the life of a fellow serviceman, but faced PTSD-related disorders and a deteriorating family life when he returned home. At Glen Law Galloway's trial in Colorado, Denver public defender Daniel King presented four days of testimony about Galloway’s character and background, including how the former Army veteran “snapped” following the collapse of his relationship with his girlfriend. King argued, “Mr. Galloway is not just the worst thing that he’s done. He’s committed many acts of kindness, friendship, service, love and duty.” In May, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty in exchange for guilty pleas in two unrelated cases involving military veterans Darren Vann in Indiana and Esteban Santiago in Florida. Santiago faced federal charges for a mass shooting, but prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because Santiago, an Iraq war veteran, suffers from schizophrenia and auditory hallucinations, had unsuccessfully sought treatment and assistance from the Veterans Administration, and had been committed to a mental hospital because of the seriousness of his mental illness.

Two death-sentenced prisoners were granted relief this year as a result of failures by their defense counsel to investigate and present mitigating evidence related to their military service and their service-related mental health disorders. Andrew Witt, an air force veteran who had been on U.S. military death row, received a life sentence after a court found his attorneys ineffective for failing to present mitigating evidence that he had suffered a traumatic brain injury. Robert Fisher's death sentence was reversed by a Pennsylvania federal court in part because his lawyer did not investigate or present evidence related to his service in Vietnam. Fisher was a Purple Heart recipient who struggled with brain damage, drug abuse, and mental health problems after his service.

On July 18, Ohio executed Robert Van Hook, an honorably discharged veteran who was suffering from long-term effects of physical and sexual abuse as a child and untreated mental health issues at the time of the offense. Van Hook had been unable to obtain care for his mental health and addiction issues from veterans service agencies after his discharge.

A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service.

Arkansas Supreme Court Strikes Down State's Death-Penalty Mental Competency Law

A divided Arkansas Supreme Court has struck down the state’s death-penalty mental competency law, holding that statutory provisions giving the state’s prison director exclusive authority to determine a death-row prisoner’s competency to be executed violate due process. The 4-3 rulings on November 1, 2018 were a victory for two mentally ill death-row prisoners, Bruce Ward (pictured, left) and Jack Greene (pictured, right), who had come within days of execution in 2017. The appeals court directed the Arkansas trial courts to conduct hearings to determine the men’s mental status and their competency to be executed.

Ward, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was scheduled to be executed on Monday, April 17, 2017. A Pulaski County trial court had denied his motion for a hearing to determine his competency to be executed, saying it had no legal authority to rule on the issue. The state supreme court stayed Ward's execution on April 14 to decide whether counsel should be permitted to litigate Ward’s competency to be executed. Greene suffers from psychotic delusions and, according to court pleadings, believes that his attorneys and prison officials are conspiring to torture him. His delusions include that “his spinal cord has been removed and his central nervous system has been destroyed,” in response to which, his lawyers say, Greene “constantly twist[s] his body and stuff[s] his ear and nose with toilet paper to cope with the pain.” Arkansas had scheduled his execution for November 9, but the Arkansas Supreme Court granted a stay on November 7 to resolve whether the state's mechanism to determine competency was constitutional.

The court’s two rulings determined that Arkansas’s competency law violated the two prisoners’ rights to due process under both the United States and Arkansas constitutions. The statute, Chief Justice John Kemp wrote, failed to “provide for an evidentiary hearing that comports with the fundamental principles of due process,” as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s competency decisions in Ford v. Wainwright and Panetti v. Quarterman. John C. Williams, a federal public defender representing the inmates, told Associated Press that the defense was “pleased the court held the statute unconstitutional, and we look forward to litigating our clients’ competence.”

Texas Court Stays Execution of Mentally Ill Prisoner with Schizophrenia

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on October 19, 2018 stayed the execution of Kwame Rockwell (pictured), a severely mentally ill death-row prisoner suffering from schizophrenia, who had been scheduled to die on October 24. The court found that Rockwell had raised “substantial doubt that he is not competent to be executed” and reversed a ruling by the Tarrant County District Court that had rejected Rockwell’s competency claim without an evidentiary hearing and without providing funds for him to obtain a competency evaluation. The appeals court ordered the trial court to appoint “at least two mental-health experts” to evaluate Rockwell’s competency. On October 16, Rockwell’s lawyers had appealed the Tarrant County order arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion in rejecting his competency claim The appeal argued that Rockwell “does not understand he is to be executed,” “has no understanding that he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death,” and “does not comprehend that he has been incarcerated on death row since 2012 or even that he is presently incarcerated in a Texas prison.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of prisoners who have become “insane”—which the Court defined as being “unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.” In 2007, in the Texas case of Panetti v. Quarterman, the Court explained that a prisoner whose delusions prevent him from having a “rational understanding” of these circumstances is incompetent to be executed. A neuropsychologist who examined Rockwell in July reported that Rockwell said he saw snakes and demons that were inside of him, appeared to be hearing voices, and, in response to a question about his name, said “my name is God.” The doctor’s affidavit said Rockwell “does not understand or appreciate where he is, the nature of his charges, why he is in prison, or the nature of his punishment.” Rockwell’s lawyers also presented the court with evidence of his significant family history of psychotic illness, including twelve family members across three generations of his family with mental illness diagnoses, and Rockwell’s own mental illness in childhood and as an adult. Citing prison records, the appeal states: “Rockwell has consistently experienced intense hallucinations and auditory delusions, despite spending the majority of his sentence on four or more antipsychotic medications concurrently. He is haunted by snakes and demons. No medications have been able to eliminate his hallucinations or delusions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has never categorically excluded people with serious mental illness from being sentenced to death or executed. A 2014 poll found that Americans by a two-to-one margin oppose executing people with mental illness. Several states have recently considered, but not adopted, legislation to bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. Rockwell’s trial lawyer did not present to the jury mitigating evidence of Rockwell’s schizophrenia or his family’s history of psychotic mental illness. Nonetheless, the Texas state and federal courts denied Rockwell’s claim that he had been provided ineffective representation at sentencing. In an opinion piece for Pacific Standard written before the Texas Court of Appeals granted the stay, David M. Perry compared the courts’ treatment of Rockwell’s case with the recent stay of execution granted to fellow Texas prisoner Juan Segundo. Segundo was granted a stay so the Tarrant County court could reconsider his claim of intellectual disability after the Supreme Court had ruled that the standard Texas had previously applied unconstitutionally risked that some people with intellectual disability would still be executed. “America still doesn't have clear protections for people with severe mental illness,” Perry explains. “These two cases in Texas remind us of the unfortunate diagnostic limitations that protect only some people with disabilities from the death penalty.”

Law Review: Junk Mental Health Science and the Texas Death Penalty

Junk science is “enabling and perpetuating grave miscarriages of justice” in Texas death-penalty cases. So concludes Professor James Acker in his article, Snake Oil With A Bite: The Lethal Veneer of Science and Texas’s Death Penalty, published in the latest issue of the Albany Law Review. Acker’s article highlights the heightened risks of injustice from pseudo-science and junk science in capital cases in Texas, one of the few states that conditions death eligibility upon a finding of the defendant’s future dangerousness. Acker writes that, “at virtually every ... stage of the state’s capital punishment process,” Texas prosecutors “have alternately enlisted expert witnesses and scientists who have helped move accused and convicted offenders progressively closer to the execution chamber, and ignored or discounted scientific norms and developments inconsistent with securing and carrying out capital sentences. All too often, the determinations made in support of death sentences are of dubious reliability—including opinions and conclusions based on what many would agree to qualify as junk science—thus greatly enhancing the risk of miscarriages of justice ....”

Acker’s article discusses Texas’s long history of abusing expert testimony in support of execution, starting with the case of Estelle v. Smith, in which Dr. James Grigson — later nicknamed “Dr. Death” — evaluated Ernest Smith for his competency to stand trial, did not notify counsel of the evaluation, failed to advise Smith of his right to remain silent, and then testified in the penalty phase “that Smith was a severe sociopath, that his condition could not be treated, and that he ‘is going to go ahead and commit other similar or same criminal acts if given the opportunity to do so.’” The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Smith’s death sentence in 1981 for violations of his right to counsel and his constitutional privilege against compelled self-incrimination. Two years later, in Barefoot v. Estelle, the Court permitted the use of psychiatric predictions of future dangerousness, despite warnings by the American Psychiatric Association that such testimony was speculative and highly unreliable. Grigson went on to testify in 167 capital cases, repeatedly responding to hypothetical questions posed by prosecutors (even after he was expelled from state and national professional associations because of this practice) that defendants whose institutional records he had never reviewed and whom he had never evaluated were certain to commit future acts of violence. Texas has also misused expert mental health testimony in capital cases to falsely argue that capital defendants posed an increased threat to society because of their race or ethnicity, Acker writes. He describes the testimony of Dr. Walter Quijano, a clinical psychologist who testified in seven cases that defendants were more likely to pose a danger to society because they were black or Latino. The Texas Attorney General’s office ultimately conceded error in all but one of those cases. Duane Buck’s case, however, reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Robert condemned Quijano’s testimony as “powerful racial stereotyping.”

The Texas courts also systemically disregarded scientific standards or otherwise abused expert mental health testimony in determinations of intellectual disability and competency to be executed, Acker says. In the case of Moore v. Texas, the Supreme Court declared Texas’s approach to intellectual disability to be unconstitutional and ordered a reconsideration of Bobby Moore’s intellectual disability claim. With the prosecution, the defense, and multiple mental health groups all agreeing that Moore is intellectually disabled, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals nevertheless upheld his death sentence. Finally, Acker writes, the state’s approach to competency has been an outlier, deeming Scott Panetti — who had been “hospitalized more than a dozen times [for mental illness and] been diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, auditory hallucinations, and delusions of persecution and grandeur” — competent to stand trial, to represent himself, and to be executed. Texas “has alternatively coopted, disregarded, and subverted science and prevailing disciplinary norms of the mental health professions,” Acker concludes. “The death penalty in Texas, imbued with powerful symbolism and political significance, has succeeded not only in condemning offenders, but also the principled teachings of science. ... Science and politics are a deadly mixture, in the nature of snake oil with a bite.”

Justices Appear to Favor Prisoner with Dementia in Case Seeking to Block Alabama Execution

The U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in Madison v. Alabama on October 2, 2018 on whether an Alabama death-row prisoner who has vascular dementia, brain damage, cognitive deficits, and memory loss from two near-fatal strokes is competent to be executed. During oral argument, Bryan Stevenson (pictured), the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, told the justices that, as a result of severe and progressively worsening dementia, Vernon Madison lacks a rational understanding of why Alabama intends to put him to death and is therefore incompetent to be executed. A majority of the justices appeared sympathetic to Madison's position, including Chief Justice John Roberts who is now regarded as the swing vote in death-penalty cases. The issues before the Court narrowed significantly as a result of concessions made by both sides at the argument. Madison's pleadings had argued that the Court's decisions in 1986 in Ford v. Wainwright and 2007 in Panetti v. Quarterman on competency to be executed applied beyond the limited circumstances of insanity and delusional mental illness at issue in those cases. "For purposes of retribution, there is no moral or constitutional distinction between a person who cannot 'recogni[ze] … the severity of the offence as a result of delusions and a person who is unable to do so as a result of dementia, cognitive decline, and memory deficits," his lawyers wrote. Alabama Deputy Attorney General Thomas Govan conceded that incompetency caused by severe dementia could also qualify. Stevenson, on the other hand, conceded in response to questioning by Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan that merely having no memory of committing the offense does not make a prisoner incompetent to be executed. Rather, Stevenson said, the memory loss must be the product of a medical or physical condition that also affects the prisoner's understanding of why he or she is to be executed. Stevenson said Madison's severe vascular dementia has left him with no memory of having killed a police officer who responded to a domestic disturbance in 1985. An MRI has shown that Madison has suffered substantial brain damage, and psychological testing has documented significant cognitive decline accompanied by IQ-loss that now places him in the borderline range of intellectual functioning. Madison's dementia has also left him disoriented as to date and time and without the ability to rationally comprehend his legal situation. He is legally blind, Stevenson said, has slurred speech, cannot recite the alphabet past the letter G or retain basic information, cannot walk without assistance, and continually soils himself because he does not know how to use the toilet in his five-by-eight cell. Madison's physical disabilities, Stevenson said, provide evidence illustrating the extent to which Madison's vascular dementia has affected all aspects of his life. Stevenson argued that Alabama's courts improperly rejected Madison's evidence of incompetency, focusing only on whether his impairments were caused by insanity, psychosis, or delusions. Govan asserted in response that by reciting the correct legal standard from Ford and Panetti and making reference to the testimony concerning Madison's impairments, Alabama had in fact considered that evidence. He further disputed whether Madison is incompetent at all, stating that Alabama would find him competent to stand trial in his current condition. Stevenson closed the argument by telling the Court that the "awesome power" to execute a person who no longer poses an immediate threat must "be utilized fairly, reliably, and humanely." The Court, Stevenson said, reviews facts and circumstances "through the window of the Constitution ..... But the Eighth Amendment isn't just a window. It's a mirror." Our norms and values "are implicated when we do things to really fragile, really vulnerable people," Stevenson said. "And what we've argued is that dementia in this case renders Mr. Madison frail, bewildered, vulnerable in a way that cannot be reconciled with executing him because of his incompetency."

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