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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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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"Volunteers" and the Need for Court Review

DPIC's Lethal Injection Page
"Volunteers" and the Need for Court Review

A sentencing that "shocks the conscience"

A recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit underscored the responsibility that all courts, and particularly the federal courts, have in ensuring that constitutional principles are upheld.

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