In the latest episode of Discussions with DPIC, Anne Holsinger, Managing Director of DPIC, interviews Dr. Sally Satel (pictured), a psychiatrist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She shares her insights on the role of severe mental illness in death penalty cases. 

Dr. Satel discusses the reasons that permit death sentences and executions for individuals with severe mental illness, which she wrote about in an op-ed for the National Review. “I don’t think it’s civilized to blame someone and punish [them] because they did not have a rational knowledge of that wrongdoing. [They] did not appreciate the significance or consequences of it.”  

Dr. Satel also focuses on Andre Thomas, a Texas death-row prisoner who has long suffered from severe mental illness. “I think there is some merit to the concept of retribution. But it’s invalid in a case like his because he was not rational. His capacity for moral logic was distorted. So if you’re not rational, then you’re not as blameworthy or as culpable as you might otherwise be…there should be diminished or no punishment. His case would not really meet the requirements of the ethic of retribution.” 

During the interview, Dr. Satel expounds on the complexities of mental illness which affect the cognitive functioning of defendants and may increase the risk of being sentenced to death. She explains that a juror’s bias towards people who have mental illness and their overall lack of understanding of mental illness influence misconceptions about the defendant during trial. “By the time they do see the defendant, [they] have been probably medicated. So they can actually appear quite rational. And so the idea is that this person kind of does not fit the image of a psychotic individual who committed murder. The medications have side effects. You can also have a situation where the person is often overmedicated. So they look very flat. Their eyes can be all over the courtroom, not really paying attention…and to the jury that can look like they’re not taking this seriously.” 

Dr. Satel also emphasizes the need for legal reform and her approval of recent Ohio legislation which prohibits imposing the death penalty on individuals with severe mental illness. Dr. Satel stated, “I think the Ohio bill is excellent…and it was passed with significant bipartisan support which is very encouraging.” 

You can listen to the podcast here


Sally Satel, The Flawed Case for Executing the Mentally Ill, National Review, March 12, 2023 

The con­ver­sa­tion was edit­ed for this podcast.