Dr. Joseph Thornton, a psychiatrist who formerly treated death row prisoners as the medical director of a Florida maximum security prison, called for an end to the death penalty for those with severe mental illness: “We should not be executing anyone, let alone the sick and the broken,” he said. “As someone with over 40 years’ experience seeing patients with serious mental illness who are stigmatized, ostracized and blamed for their symptoms, I believe that recovery care, not ostracization, respects life and saves lives.”

In an op-ed in the Florida Times Union, Thornton used the case of Donald Dillbeck, who suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, mental health issues, and brain abnormalities, to illustrate the failures of the current system. “In Dillbeck’s case, once on death row, he got clean and sober, developed meaningful relationships with friends on the outside and found prayer and meditation as a way to cope. He had no violent incidents in the last three decades. Killing him did not make us any safer,” explained Thornton.

More broadly, Thornton argued that “Death penalty executions are a unique form of homicide. The state kills not for self-defense, not for deterrence, not for justice, but for pure retribution. We must not accept this and we must tell our legislators to say, “not in my name may you kill.”

Rather than the death penalty, which is “not necessary to protect society,” Thornton said he believes that more should be invested in “services for family support and mental health treatment” in order to protect the victims of child abuse. He also noted that “Veterans with uncontrolled PTSD are especially overrepresented on Florida’s death row.”


Joseph E. Thornton, Joseph Thornton: Execution of men­tal­ly ill pris­on­ers does noth­ing to make us safer,” The Florida Times-Union, March 182023