Conditions on Death Row in Texas

In an article entitled "Solitary Men" in The Texas Observer, Dave Mann describes the conditions for inmates on Texas's death row.  Inmates in the Polunsky Unit near Livingston, Texas, spend almost their entire time alone in a 60-square-foot cell.  He writes, "The cells have a small window at one end. The steel door has a narrow window and, at the bottom, a slit through which guards slide trays of food. . . .Little penetrates these cement boxes except sound. Prison is a loud place, and sound can cause the most torment. The constant yelling and taunting and clanging doors—what one inmate describes as 'prison ruckus'—never ceases. Occasionally there are dull thuds of beatings and the screams of nearby prisoners descending into madness."  When they do get out for exercise for a short time 5 days a week, they can only exercise alone in adjacent cages.  Some inmates are kept this way for as long as 30 years, though the average stay is closer to 10 before an execution occurs.  Contact visits and televisions are never allowed in what Mann describes as "perhaps the harshest death row conditions in the country."  The article cites a number of studies showing that inmates enduring such solitary confinement conditions often slip into severe mental illness. (photo c. Ken Light).

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Georgia and Virginia Executions Raise Concerns About Mental Disabilities

Brandon Rhode (pictured) in Georgia received a second reprieve following his suicide attempt just prior to his scheduled execution on September 21.  His execution is now set for September 27 at 7 pm, despite questions about his mental competency.  Rhode has been diagnosed as suffering from organic brain damage and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). According to experts, mental deficiencies associated with FASD exacerbate the impairments associated with adolescent brain immaturity.  Rhode was likely functioning at a younger level than his chronological age when he committed the crime that sent him to death row. His lawyer, Brian Kammer, asked the Georgia Supreme Court to stop the execution altogether: “The stress and barbarity of his present situation, coupled with his longstanding depression and mental illness, has resulted in Brandon Rhode now experiencing dissociative episodes as his mind tries unsuccessfully to cope with his current physical condition.”  Rhode was rushed to the hospital after slashing his arms and neck on the day before his originally scheduled execution. The case raises some of the concerns regarding the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia. Lewis was assessed as borderline intellectually disabled with an IQ of 72.  Gov. McDonnell refused to grant her clemency and she was executed on Sept. 23.

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Supreme Court Agrees to Hear California Death Penalty Case

On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Cullen v. Pinholster. In 1984, Scott Pinholster was convicted and sentenced to death for killing two men during a burglary in Los Angeles, California. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Pinholster's death sentence because of ineffectiveness of counsel since his lawyer did not give the jury evidence of Pinholster's mental illness during the penalty phase of the trial. The appeals court said the evidence might have persuaded the jury to opt for a lesser sentence. The Supreme Court will review the lower court's decision and decide whether Pinholster should receive a new sentencing hearing or whether his death sentence should be reinstated.  The case will be heard in the Court's next term beginning in the fall of 2010.

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Mental Health Experts Say North Carolina Case Shows Need to Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

In North Carolina, Kristin Parks of Disability Rights N.C. and John Tote of the Mental Health Association-N.C. pointed to the case of Abdullah El-Amin Shareef as illustrating the need for a law exempting the mentall ill from the death penalty.  A jury recently sentenced Shareef to life in prison without parole in a case where prosecutors had sought the death penalty. In April 2004, Shareef committed a senseless crime that killed one man and injured three others, primarily because his paranoid schizophrenia went untreated. At the time, Shareef was declared incompetent to stand trial.  A psychiatrist described Shareef's behavior on the day of the incident as "the result of an extreme condition of psychosis."  Recently, a judge said he could now be tried after years of medication and treatment.  The authors of the op-ed in the Charlotte-Observer noted, "A death penalty trial is a long and heartbreaking experience for victims' families, and likely especially so when they want the offender executed but the verdict is life. In the Shareef trial, much pain and many resources could have been saved had a law that has been proposed in the General Assembly been in effect. "  

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LAW REVIEWS: Condemned Defendants Should Comprehend Death

A recent  article by Prof. Jeffrey Kirchmeier of the City University of New York School of Law entitled, "The Undiscovered Country: Execution Competency & Comprehending Death" explores whether mentally disabled inmates who do not understand that execution means the end of their physical life should be spared. Kirchmeier examines Supreme Court precedent under the Eighth Amendment that requires that a condemned defendant be competent in order to be executed. The article argues that the penological goals of the death penalty could not be fulfilled unless the condemned person comprehends what his death means. Kirchmeier writes, "Those who do not comprehend death are not as a category a group of people who will be deterred by the death penalty more than life in prison, and such persons will not be able to appreciate the moral condemnation designed to be delivered by the death penalty." The article also discusses a standard for comprehension of death consistent with earlier Court rulings. Click here to read the full article.

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