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NEW RESOURCES: American Bar Association Sponsored Study Calls for Death Penalty Moratorium

According to a new study released by the American Bar Association, Ohio's capital punishment system is so flawed that it should be suspended while the state conducts a thorough review of its fairness and accuracy. The study, conducted by a 10-member panel of Ohio attorneys appointed by the ABA, found that the state's death penalty is prone to racial and geographic imbalances and that it meets only four of the 93 ABA recommendations to ensure a fair capital punishment system. "Regardless of one's views of the morality of the death penalty, it is beyond question that if Ohio is to have a death penalty it needs to be one that is fair, accurate and provides due process to all capital defendants and those on death row. Unfortunately, this is not the case," said Phyllis Crocker, a Cleveland State University law professor and member of the Ohio review team.

Among the panel's key recommendations were the following:

  • Ohio should ensure that it provides adequate opportunities for death row inmates to prove their innocence. This includes improved preservation of biological evidence while inmates are incarcerated, creation of nationally-certified crime laboratories, videotaping of all interrogations in potentially capital cases, and implementation of lineup procedures that protect against incorrect eyewitness identification. In addition, the report recommends that Ohio Governor Ted Strickland supplement the state's current clemency process by appointing a commission to conduct investigations, hold hearings, and test evidence, to review cases of factual innocence in capital cases.
  • Ohio should ensure that all capital defendants and death row inmates who are poor receive competent lawyers. The panel noted that Ohio does not have safeguards in place to ensure competent representation in all cases. It urged compliance with the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases. It also urged lawmakers to better compensate defense attorneys to ensure high quality representation, and to provide defense teams with sufficient funds for access to experts and investigators.
  • Ohio should exempt people with severe mental disabilities from the death penalty. The panel found that while Ohio does protect those with mental retardation from facing the death penalty, it does not extend this protection to those with other types of serious mental disorders.
  • Ohio should eliminate racial and geographic bias from its death penalty system. As part of its assessment, the ABA conducted a racial and geographic disparity study which looked at death sentences in Ohio between 1981 and 2000. The review found that those who kill white victims are 3.8 times more likely to receive a death sentence than those who kill black victims. It also found that the chances of receiving a death sentence in Hamilton County are 2.7 times higher than in the rest of the state, 3.7 times higher than in Cuyahoga County, and 6.2 times higher than in Franklin County.
  • Ohio should provide increased discovery in state post-conviction appeals. The panel noted that Ohio denies petitioners access to discovery procedures necessary to develop post-conviction claims. The ABA criticized an existing policy that allows reporters and other members of the public to use the public records law to obtain materials in support of post-conviction claims, but prohibits a petitioner from using this law to obtain these same documents.

A spokesperson for Gov. Strickland said that he is reviewing the report and its recommendations.
(Associated Press, September 25, 2007, and ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project Ohio Death Penalty Assessment Report, September 2007). Read the report and supporting documents. See also Arbitrariness, Race, Representation, Mental Illness, Innocence, and Studies.


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NEW RESOURCES: North Carolina Report Examines Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

A new report from the Charlotte School of Law on mental illness and the death penalty reveals that obstacles entrenched within the criminal justice system impede efforts to identify those with severe mental illness and treat them fairly. The report, "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Diagnostic Approach," is based on a 2006 symposium hosted by the law school. It examines scientific studies of mental illness and provides an overview of laws established to protect those with mental illness from unjustly facing the death penalty. The report concludes that current legal protections are inadequate, in large part because mentally ill offenders are often allowed to undermine their own defense.  Additionally, the legal definitions of mental incompetence which might spare a person from the death penalty do not align with clinical judgments that medical practitioners have to make.  Moreover, jurors in death penalty cases often perceive mental illness as an aggravating - rather than a mitigating - factor.


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Supreme Court Blocks Execution of Mentally Ill Inmate

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 2007, that Scott Panetti, a man with severe mental illness on Texas's death row, deserves a rehearing on his claim of mental incompetence.  The Court's 5-4 ruling overturned a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit that had used an overly restrictive definition of what constitutes insanity.  The lower court had held that mere knowledge of one's crime, without a rational understanding, was sufficient to allow an execution to go forward.   The Court also said that the Texas state court failed to provide Panetti with the kind of review guaranteed under the Constitution.  The case is Panetti v. Quarterman


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Texas Scores Poorly in Mental Health Services While Executing Many with Mental Illness

A recent study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has revealed that Texas is almost last among states in spending on mental health services and performs poorly in other mental health areas. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas ranked 47th in the nation in per-capita spending on mental health services, and received a grade of "D" for information access and a grade of "C" overall.


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Florida Supreme Court Reduces Death Sentence Because of Mental Illness

The Florida Supreme Court reduced a death sentence to life without parole because of the defendant's serious mental illness. The court noted that this was "one of the most documented cases of serious mental illnesses this court has reviewed." In its decision rejecting the trial judge's death sentence for Christopher Offord (pictured), the justices unanimously held that the death penalty was a disproportionate punishment due to Offord's long-standing mental problems. Medical records show that Offord, who was convicted of killing his wife in 2004, suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and has been in and out of institutions since he was a young boy.  The trial judge had imposed a death sentence despite the fact that she found Offord had committed the murder under the influence of extreme mental or emotional disturbance and lacked the capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct.  The jury had unanimously recommended a death sentence.


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NEW RESOURCES: Amnesty International Report: "Prisoner-Assisted Homicides" regarding Volunteers

With a number of executions of inmates who have waived their appeals approaching in the U.S., Amnesty International has released a new report, "Prisoner-assisted homicide--more 'volunteer' executions loom." The report addresses the fact that about 12% of executions in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated have been of inmates who gave up appeals that would have extended their time on death row. The report looks at some of the possible reasons for the large number of volunteers including mental illness and the conditions on death row. The report examines the cases of some of the volunteers who have been executed, and provides statistics on the number of volunteers in each state. Executions of volunteers are approaching in Arizona, Ohio, South Dakota, and possibly Tennessee.
(Read Amnesty's Report on Volunteers, posted May 17, 2007). See Mental Illness and Time on Death Row.


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U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Three Texas Death Sentences

The United States Supreme Court overturned the death sentences of three Texas inmates in separate 5-4 rulings today. In all three cases, the juries had been prevented by the Texas statute (since changed) from fully considering the mitigating evidence presented by the defendants, evidence such as their low IQ or other mental deficiencies. In Smith v. Texas (No. 05-11304), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had reconsidered Smith's death sentence after the case had been previously reviewed and sent back by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Texas court held that any error on the mitigation issue was harmless and therefore did not require a reversal. The Supreme Court rejected that analysis and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing.


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Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Whether Texas Man is Mentally Competent to be Executed

On Wednesday, April 18, at 1 PM, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Panetti v. Quarterman. This case focuses on the question of whether an inmate must have a rational understanding of his crime and why he is being punished prior to execution, or whether mere awareness of his situation is sufficient for mental competency. For a fuller description of the case, see Supreme Court (Pending 2007 cases). This page includes links to some of the legal briefs filed in this case. For a broader discussion of issues beyond the limited scope of this case, see Mental Illness. (Posted April 16, 2007).


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Articles - Mental Illness and Retardation
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Editorials - Mental Illness and Retardation

Editorials Praise Virginia Governor's Decision to Delay Walton Execution

Recent editorials in The Washington Post and Roanoke Times praised Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's decision to delay the execution of Percy Walton in order to ensure that he is sane enough to execute. The papers noted that Kaine's decision, which drew criticism from some death penalty advocates, demonstrated "competence in lawfully applying the death penalty" and was "courageous."

The Washington Post noted:

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a devout Catholic and principled opponent of the death penalty, threaded the needle on that issue in his race for office last year. In a broadly pro-capital-punishment state, he said forthrightly that he had long-standing moral and religious objections to state executions. Yet he also pledged to carry out the death sentence as a function of his office and in pursuance of state law. To do otherwise, he said, would be to disregard his official oath -- except in instances when a convict's guilt was in question.

Now, with a condemned man's life on the line, Mr. Kaine has stepped in; with scarcely an hour to spare last week, he postponed for six months an execution pending an inquiry into the inmate's mental state. Predictably, Mr. Kaine's pro-death-penalty opponents howled that he had broken a campaign promise. It's a good bet they haven't read the case record in question; Mr. Kaine clearly has.

The record on convicted killer Percy Levar Walton leaves no doubt about his guilt; in 1996, a month past his 18th birthday, he murdered three people, including an elderly couple, in the Southside city of Danville. The record of his competency to face the death sentence is another matter.

Mr. Walton's case is complex. An array of psychiatrists have reached differing conclusions about his mental capacity and ability to grasp that he may be put to death. That's important, as the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that a condemned man is fit for execution only if he understands that he's been sentenced to death and the reason.

There is evidence that Mr. Walton's mental ability and health are declining. A decade ago he scored 90 on an IQ test -- below average but not severely so. But in recent years he has twice scored under 70, the level below which people are considered mentally retarded. More to the point, he has sometimes seemed cloudy on what the death penalty means, telling one psychiatrist that after his execution he expected to have access to a telephone, a motorcycle and a job at Burger King. Ruling on Mr. Walton's case in March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, perhaps the nation's most conservative federal court, split 7 to 6 in deciding that he is mentally fit to be executed.

Mr. Kaine has already shown that he takes his campaign promises seriously; in April he denied clemency and allowed a condemned man to be executed. But he is empowered by Virginia's constitution to review scheduled executions one by one, and he is duty-bound to take that responsibility seriously. Virginia governors have granted clemency in seven cases since the Supreme Court reinstituted the death penalty in 1976. Mr. Kaine is right, and courageous, to order a full review before passing a final judgment on Mr. Walton.

(Washington Post, June 11, 2006)

The Roanoke Times stated:

Whether Walton is smart enough or sane enough to understand that Virginia last week was hours away from killing him for those crimes is very much in doubt. Gov. Tim Kaine made the right call when he stayed Walton's execution for six months, time enough to determine the degree of his mental retardation and mental illness.

Before Virginia pumps lethal chemicals into this killer's veins, the state should be sure Walton understands exactly what will happen to him and why the commonwealth exacts the ultimate retribution. The U.S. Supreme Court requires -- and a just society demands -- this level of mental competency. . .

Reasonable doubt prompted Kaine to order the gathering of "current and independent information about Walton's mental condition." Without that assessment, Kaine said it would be "imprudent to either proceed with the execution or grant clemency."

Had a governor other than Kaine arrived at that conclusion, few would comment. But as a practicing Roman Catholic, he came under attack during last year's campaign. He assured voters his personal opposition to the death penalty would not prevent him from carrying out the duties of the office. He has allowed one execution to proceed on schedule.

Walton's stay leaves Kaine vulnerable to "we told you so" rants. Those should be ignored by reasonable people who expect Virginia to exhibit competence in lawfully applying the death penalty.

(Roanoke Times, June 12, 2006)

Editorial Praises Clemency for Mentally Ill Indiana Man Facing Execution

A recent editorial in The Washington Post praised Indiana Governor Mitchell Daniels for commuting the death sentence of Arthur Baird, who suffers from severe mental illness. The editorial noted:

Indiana Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) acted wisely and humanely this week in commuting the death sentence of one Arthur Paul Baird II. There is no question that Mr. Baird killed his parents and his pregnant wife back in 1985. There is also little question that he is seriously mentally ill and was so then. His mental illness was clearly a significant factor in the killings and just as clearly led directly to his death sentence. Because of his delusional state, Mr. Baird inexplicably rejected a plea deal the state had offered him that would have spared his life. Jurors in his case have indicated that had life in prison without parole -- not an option in Indiana at the time -- been available, they would have chosen that rather than death. Family members were similarly inclined. Yet the state parole board recommended against clemency on a 3 to 1 vote, and the Indiana Supreme Court, also divided, likewise declined to step in. Mr. Daniels deserves credit for taking responsibility for preventing Mr. Baird's execution. . .

Still, other governors in recent years, faced with severely mentally ill inmates on death row, have averted their gaze and let them die. The Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded or those who were not of age at the time of their crimes. That it is still somehow okay to put to death a florid psychotic is a strange and amoral anomaly of contemporary American law, one that cries out for reform. Until that happens, however, executive clemency is the only viable protection. It is refreshing to see a governor willing to step up to the plate.

(Washington Post, September 1, 2005)

Austin American-Statesman: Texas Must Fix Uneven Application of the Death Penalty

In a November 25, 2003 editorial, the Austin American-Statesman argues that the state's implementation of the death penalty is unfair, citing the recent case of Walter Bell, who was declared mentally retarded by state experts. The editorial states that despite this,

"Rodney Connerly, the Jefferson County assistant district attorney who is now handling the case, dismisses the retardation findings as just "based on numbers," and said the fact that Bell could commit the killings shows he is not mentally retarded."

(Austin American-Statesman, November 25, 2003)

From the Washington Post: Mentally Ill Juvenile Offender Receives Stay of Execution in Georgia

(Note: Williams's sentence was commuted to life)

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted a temporary stay of execution until Feb. 25 to consider the case of Alexander Williams, a mentally ill inmate who was sentenced to death for a crime he committed when he was 17 years old. Williams's attorneys assert that he should not be executed because he is a juvenile offender who suffers from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Williams has a standing "involuntary medication order" that permits guards to forcibly inject his medication if he does not take it voluntarily. At Williams's trial, neither his age nor his mental health issues were presented to the jury. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 2/20/02) In an editorial urging a court to consider the Williams case, The Washington Post stated:

 [T]he Williams case raises the question of whether Georgia may treat an inmate to restore competency, in order then to kill him.

    . . .

 The state does not concede the extent of Mr. Williams's impairment, contending instead that the matter has never been raised in the appropriate forum. But it apparently does take his delusions seriously enough to forcibly inject him with drugs if he does not take them willingly.

At the very least, a court should consider the evidence of Mr. Williams's current mental state and determine whether his execution would offend the Constitution. No court has yet done so. Ultimately, the Supreme Court should make clear that states may not treat mental illness in order to pave the road to the death chamber. The court faced this question once before, and it punted. It should not do so again. . . . Here's hoping someone has the decency to stop it altogether.

(The Washington Post, editorial, 02/20/02)

From the Dallas Morning News:

Gov. George W. Bush has a responsibility to step away from the campaign trail today and urge the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to reconsider its decision to allow the execution of convicted killer Larry Robison Friday...

[E]xecuting a criminal who suffered from mental illness before he murdered and who lacked the resources for psychiatric care serves no public purpose....

[T]he nation's 2nd largest state ranks 48th for mental health investments overall.

(Dallas Morning News, 11/20/00)

From The Dallas Morning News

The state shouldn't kill people who cannot comprehend the fact that they are going to be executed or why they are going to die.....Ongoing, severe mental illness and lifelong mental retardation should exempt prisoners from the death penalty.

(Dallas Morning News, 2/2/99)


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