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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"The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars"- an Op-ed by Bernard Harcourt

In a recent New York Times op-ed, University of Chicago law and criminology professor Bernard Harcourt notes that a growing number of individuals "who used to be tracked for mental health treatment are now getting a one-way ticket to jail." Pointing to a Justice Department study released in September 2006, Harcourt notes that 56% of those jailed in state prisons and 64% of all inmates across the nation reported mental health problems within the past year. He states that one reason for the increase in the number of mentally ill inmates may be a trend away from institutionalizing these individuals in mental hospitals and asylums.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the United States institutionalized people at higher rates than are reported today, but then the institutionalization was mostly attributable to mental hospitals, while today it is prisons.  He writes, "Though troubling, none of this should come as a surprise. Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt - bed by bed - an enormous prison."
(New York Times, January 15, 2007).  See Mental Illness.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case of Panetti v. Quarterman involving a different, but related issue: the standard for mental incompetency that would bar an execution.  See Supreme Court.

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Supreme Court Takes Fourth Texas Death Penalty Case

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on January 5 to hear another death penalty case from Texas, this one involving a defendant who may be mentally incompetent.  In 1986, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute an inmate who is presently insane.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that Scott Panetti, who was allowed to defend himself in his Texas trial despite his schizophrenia and 14 stints in mental hospitals, and who says the devil compelled his actions, was aware that he committed a crime and that he was to be punished.  The question for the Supreme Court is whether mere awareness of one's acts can be equated with mental competetence, or whether the person also needs to rationally understand what is taking place.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness had urged the Justices to take the case, Panetti v. Quarterman, No. 06-6407.

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