Inmates With Severe Mental Illness Underscore Broader Death Penalty Problems

In his final article for 2006, columnist Richard Cohen chose to highlight the "madness of the death penalty" and to draw attention to the execution of those with mental illness. Cohen used the case of Gregory Thompson, a severely mentally ill Tennessee death row inmate, to illustrate some of the broader problems with the death penalty.

Thompson is delusional, paranoid, schizophrenic, and depressed. He takes 12 pills every day and receives twice-monthly anti-psychotic injections. Cohen notes that although there is no doubt about his guilt, there is grave doubt "about the constitutionality, not to mention the decency, of executing an insane man. . . . The idea, according to a recent account of his case in the Wall Street Journal, is to make him sane enough to be put to death." Cohen voices concern about a broad range of uncertainties with the death penalty, including the danger of convicting innocent people. He notes that Americans are growing more skeptical of capital punishment and that they may be "beginning to understand that we just don't need the death penalty, that it makes us no safer and demeans us as a people."

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Death Penalty Will Not Be Sought for Killing at Jewish Federation

Following an announcement that prosecutors would not seek the death penalty for Naveed Haq, who is accused of killing one woman and wounding five others at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, two of Haq's victims said they supported the decision to seek a life sentence. "The death penalty most likely promulgates further violence and revenge," said Cheryl Stumbo, who was wounded in the attack.  King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng classified it as "one of the most serious crimes that has ever occurred in this city." Layla Bush, who was also wounded by Haq during the July shooting, noted that she believes life in prison will be a tougher punishment than execution, adding, "I think this guy is someone who could feel remorse in prison. Two wrongs don't make a right."

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Exonerated but Never Set Free  March 31, 2003
By Maureen O'Hagan

Seattle Times
When the state wanted to execute Benjamin Harris, they said he was perfectly sane. When his conviction was overturned, they locked him up for being crazy. And recently, the state considered Harris sane enough to ask him to testify as a prosecution witness in court.

Such is the unusual tale of Benjamin Harris, the only person ever exonerated from Washington's death row.

The catch is he never went free.

In a little-known twist, Harris was taken to Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Pierce County, after his conviction and sentence were overturned. That was after a judge ruled he was mentally competent and a jury ruled he should not be confined. "It's a very interesting case," said Laurie Lola Vollen, a visiting scholar at Berkeley, who's just begun a program to help reintegrate "exonerees" into society.

"It's about using the mental-health card essentially as a tool of the state. They play it when they want to lock him up, and they deny it when they want to execute him." Harris remains at the psychiatric hospital to this day, held for six years in what was supposed to be a 90-day transition program. That makes almost 20 years of continuous confinement.

"In essence, he's still in prison for a crime he never committed
," said former state senator Neil Hoff, a Tacoma lawyer who is now representing him. Harris, he said, is neither dangerous nor mentally ill. "They found me competent to be executed," Harris said. "Now they're saying I have all these problems. That's not the way to play the game. It's time to get on with my life."

But prosecutors disagree. Harris is not only responsible for the murder of a Tacoma auto mechanic, he's also grown to be seriously and dangerously mentally ill. And here lies the crux of the problem: Is Benny Harris mentally ill or sane? Is he a killer or an innocent man?

Local character
The murder victim, Jimmie Turner, took two bullets that summer of 1984, one in the head and one in the neck. When his body was found near his garage in Tacoma's Hilltop area, there was talk that he was mixed up in crime and that several people may have wanted him dead. In those days, Harris was a well-known local character who sauntered the streets in a snazzy suit and hat. "That was my trademark," Harris recalled recently. "I was pretty happy-go-lucky back then." Most mornings, he'd stop by the local coffee shop where lawyers and legislators went for breakfast and gossip. "He would shake hands and walk through as if he was running for president," Hoff recalled. Harris, who considered himself a police informant, often bragged about his connections.

After Turner was shot dead, Harris went, unprompted, to a detective he knew and said he wasn't involved. Then he said he would help them solve the case. Based in part on Harris' information, Gregory "Gay Gay" Bonds was charged that July with murder. But soon, the cops turned their attention to their all-too-willing informant. On Aug. 10, Harris was charged with paying Bonds to kill Turner in a murder-for-hire plot. Within 10 weeks, he would be sentenced to death.

A mess of things
Murray Anderson, who died in 1994, was an experienced defense lawyer, but he gave Harris' case the attention of a shoplifting charge, a judge later said. His representation, or lack of it, made a mess of things for both Harris and the state.

From the start, Anderson didn't bother to challenge the prosecutor's decision to seek death, a move that is routine and could very well have been successful, experts now say. His preparation for trial in Pierce County Superior Court was 1 hour and 48 minutes talking to Harris and 12 hours of other work.

Anderson didn't interview most of the people who could be called to testify, speaking to only three of 32 people. And, he didn't contact a single person Harris said could help him. His assistant, Tom Haist, handled some of the key parts of the case, even though he was just six months out of law school.

Anderson later said that his only strategy for trial was this: Harris should confess to shooting Turner. His reasoning was that the state's capital case rested solely on the allegation that Harris paid Bonds to do the crime. Without the murder-for-hire element, it was a run-of-the-mill murder case, not punishable by death. So if Harris said he did the crime, he couldn't be found guilty of paying Bonds to do it and couldn't be sentenced to death. At least, that was the theory.

"Murray forced me to make a confession," Harris said. "It was about as stupid as it can get," said Seattle attorney Allen Ressler, who represented Harris on his appeals. Anderson even put his client on the stand. Harris testified that he and Bonds crept up on Turner that night, and Bonds fired first.

"After Gay Gay shot him, he flipped the gun over to Benny, Old West style, and Benny did him in," Haist recalls of his testimony. "The whole story seemed unlikely." And it was. The police department's forensics showed that one person fired both shots, a fact that didn't come up at trial. In closing arguments, Anderson told the jury that Harris "doesn't have the same moral code as we expect." He also said his client belonged to "a class of men who don't work, carry guns" and "kill people." The jury's decision was swift: guilty. And on Oct. 31, 1984, they sentenced him to death. Bonds went on trial, too, but with a different attorney. He was acquitted.

Appeals dragged on
Harris was sent to death row at the Washington State Penitentiary near Walla Walla, and for 10 years, appeal after appeal was rejected. Twice, Harris came within weeks of execution, but the death warrants were stayed.

As the appeals dragged on, his lawyers began arguing that he was mentally ill. That's because mentally ill people, those who can't understand their circumstances, are not executed in this state. Even from the start, police and others had questioned Harris' mental state.

To this day, Harris holds some ideas that are indisputably, well ... odd. He believes, for instance, that the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan may be linked to Turner's murder and that the trial judge was spotted near the scene of the crime. And there may have been some Cuban conspirators, too.

But over the years the state repeatedly fought the idea that Harris was mentally unstable, first during a hearing to have a guardian appointed and again during a hearing about his competency to be executed. "The state argued at every juncture that he was competent, that he was sane," Ressler said. Then in 1994, Harris' appeals reached the desk of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Bryan. Bryan found that Harris' trial was so flawed that his guilt was in serious doubt. Anderson was to blame.

"The one person in the courtroom who is professionally obligated to display a sense of loyalty and advocacy has described Harris in such a way that left him with little or no credibility, no humanity and no means to be identified as a peer of the jury," Bryan wrote.

Bryan overturned Harris' conviction, ruling he must be retried or set free. Prosecutors were not happy. "This is a man who at one point admitted he killed this person," said Kathleen Proctor, of the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office. It turned out that retrial was out of the question: Key witnesses were either dead, in prison for murder themselves, or simply unwilling to testify. It looked as if Harris was going to go free.

With release looming, the state decided on another tactic: Harris was now mentally ill. To prove it, they used Harris' own arguments -- the ones his lawyers made to save him from execution -- against him, said John Ladenburg, the Pierce County prosecutor at the time. "The argument the state ended up buying is he had become more and more mentally imbalanced in prison," Ladenburg said. First they tried to convince a judge that Harris was incompetent to understand court proceedings.

When that failed, they tried to get him civilly committed as dangerously mentally ill, but a jury ruled he should not be confined. But the state persisted and in 1997 got a court order sending Harris to Western State. For years, he has been in a program designed as a short-term transition for people readjusting to society.

Free to wander
A well-kept, stout and balding fellow with large round glasses, Harris does not give the initial impression he is seriously mentally ill. He speaks in normal cadence and talks calmly about current events and his case. "Believe me, I would know if I was delusional," he said. "I've seen it (at the hospital). I don't resemble that even slightly." His good behavior means he's earned a hospital job and has long been allowed to leave the grounds during the day. "If he's delusional," Hoff asked, "why would they let him wander around Tacoma?"

Earlier this month, Harris received a subpoena from the Pierce County prosecutor asking him to testify against a nurse charged with molesting a patient at Western State. Recently, Hoff has been threatening to file a lawsuit against the state and the county for wrongfully confining Harris. The threats may have had some effect. At a late-February hearing, officials said they might consider releasing Harris if they could come up with a detailed plan for life on the outside. Hoff says that's good news. Still, he worries. Harris has health problems. He has no place to live. Would a halfway house or group home accept him? How would he pay his way? "I haven't really tried to get him out before because there's no place for him to go," Hoff said.

While Hoff thinks Harris should be freed, he has to concede that his client's life isn't so bad.
"You take a man who's been on death row and give him freedom to go to a movie or stroll the grounds, he's reasonably content," Hoff said. "He's like the canary. You put him in a cage for 10 years and then open the cage, the bird will fly right back in there."

Maureen O'Hagan:206-464-2562 or [email protected]

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Stays Granted in Two Pending Executions: Issues are Lethal Injection and Mental Illness

Stays have been granted in two of the three executions that had still been scheduled for December.  On December 1 in Ohio, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit granted a stay of execution to Jerome Henderson, whose execution had been scheduled for December 5.  Henderson was allowed to join a challenge to the state's lethal injection protocol.  The 6th Circuit denied the state's request to rehear the issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to lift the stay.  (Associated Press, Dec. 5, 2006).

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Concerns Grow About the Mentally Ill on Death Row

There is growing concern among national mental health and legal organizations regarding inmates on death row who are severely mentally ill. Many of these inmates had been exhibiting clear signs of mental illness at the time of their crimes, and some, like Scott Panetti in Texas and Guy LeGrande in North Carolina, were allowed to represent themselves at trial, despite their bizarre behavior. Mr. Panetti, who was hospitalized 14 times for mental problems prior to his trial, represented himself in a cowboy suit and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ. The trial devolved at times into chaos and gibberish. Mr. LeGrande, who is scheduled to be executed on December 1, represented himself wearing a Superman T-shirt and called the jurors "Antichrists."

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Governor's Adviser Recommends Clemency for Mentally Ill Inmate

Mark Urban, chairman of the Governor's Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities, has requested that North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley fully consider death row inmate Guy LeGrande's request for clemency. LeGrande (pictured), who is scheduled for execution on December 1, has been diagnosed as psychotic and delusional.  

"Mr. LeGrande was allowed to represent himself even though he believed near the time of his trial that Oprah Winfrey and Dan Rather were speaking to him personally through television sets," Urban wrote. "It appears his mental illness made it impossible for him to get a fair trial."  LeGrande  asked the jury at his trial to sentence him to death.

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Clemency Urged for Mentally Ill Man in North Carolina

At a press conference on November 1, the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus called for the governor to commute the death sentence of Guy LeGrande.  Le Grande is scheduled to be executed on December 1.  He was allowed to represent himself at his 1996 murder trial, despite the fact that he claimed to be hearing messages from Oprah Winfrey and Dan Rather through television sets.  His defense lawyer, Jay Ferguson, said LeGrande falsely believes he has already been pardoned and will receive a large sum of money.  "The problem is you have a mentally ill person representing himself," Ferguson said. "When his standby counsel asked the court to review his mental competency, the judge asked the defendant if he wanted to do that and he said no. His response was to tear up the paperwork. So you've got a mentally ill defendant making the call on whether his competency should be examined."

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NEW VOICES: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Says Mentally Ill Should be Exempt from Death Penalty

Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton of the Ohio Supreme Court called upon the legislature to exempt defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty.  Judge Stratton concurred in the affirmance of the death sentence for Donald Ketterer.  She noted that she was not questioning Ketterer's guilt, nor whether he was competent to stand trial, nor even his possible mental retardation, all of which are covered by other aspects of the law.  Rather the judge said she was constrained by existing law to uphold the death sentence, even though she believed the defendant's mental illness should merit an exemption from the death penalty:

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BOOKS: "Minding Justice: Laws that Deprive People with Mental Disability of Life and Liberty"

Christopher Slobogin of the University of Florida's Law School has written a new book about the state's legal authority to deprive people with mental disabilities of life or liberty.  The book discusses a number of well known cases such as that of John Hinckley and Andrea Yates.  It also includes discussion of laws dealing with the insanity defense, the death penalty, commitment of sexual predators, and hospitalization of people considered unable to make rational decisions.  The book advances new ways of thinking and calls for a complete revamping of the insanity defense, the abolition of the guilty but mentally ill verdict, and a prohibition on execution of people with mental disability.

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Conference to Address Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

The Charlotte School of Law is sponsoring a symposium on "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty: Seeking a 'Reasoned Moral Response' to an Unavoidable Condition" on October 20, 2006 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The conference will bring together medical experts, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and other experts to discuss whether current law adequately accounts for the role of mental illness in capital cases.  Among those scheduled to speak are James Coleman of Duke University Law School, Ronald Tabak, a leader in the American Bar Association's involvement with this issue, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Alyson Kuroski, M.D, Director of Forensic Psychiatry, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, School of Medicine. 

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