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REPORT: Two-Thirds of Oregon's Death Row Have Mental Impairments, History of Severe Trauma, or Were Under 21 at Offense

Most of the prisoners on Oregon's death row suffer from significant mental impairments, according a study released on December 20, 2016 by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard University. The Project's analysis of case records, media reports, and opinions of Oregon legal experts found that two-thirds of the 35 people on the state's death row "possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred." The report argues that these characteristics make the prisoners less culpable than the average offender. "[T]he U.S. Supreme Court has held that regardless of the severity of the crime, imposition of the death penalty upon a juvenile or an intellectually disabled person, both classes of individuals who suffer from impaired mental and emotional capacity relative to typically developed adults, would be so disproportionate as to violate his or her 'inherent dignity as a human being,'" the report says, drawing parallels between those classes and the prisoners included in the report. The study found that 9 of the 35 death row prisoners (26%) "presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome"; approximately one in four exhibited symptoms of mental illness, or had a confirmed mental health diagnosis; one-third suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma of the sort known to affect brain development; and six (17%) were under the age of 21 at the time of the offense. In one case, an Oregon death row prisoner was granted a hearing to determine whether he is intellectually disabled after evidence showed he has a psychotic disorder, partial fetal alcohol syndrome, visible brain defects in his corpus callosum, a low IQ, and deficits in adaptive behavior that left him functioning at the level of a seven-and-a-half-year old child. His co-defendant, a childhood friend who admitted that he had exerted pressure on the first defendant to participate in the crime, was given a life sentence. The report concludes, "These findings raise a legitimate question as to whether Oregon’s capital punishment scheme is capable of limiting application of the death penalty to the most culpable offenders." Oregon currently has a moratorium on executions, and has executed just two people in 40 years.


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American Bar Association Issues White Paper Supporting Death Penalty Exemption for Severe Mental Illness

At a December 6-7 national summit on severe mental illness and the death penalty, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released a new white paper that it hopes will provide law makers with information and policy analysis to "help states pass laws that will establish clear standards and processes to prevent the execution of those with severe mental illness." The ABA does not take a position on the death penalty itself, but believes that "[i]ndividuals with severe mental disorders or disabilities ... should not be subject to capital punishment." The white paper describes the range of problems faced by seriously mentally ill defendants in capital cases and sets forth possible legislative approaches for exempting them from capital sanctions. The white paper, and ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass in her address to the summit, likened the diminished moral culpability of the severely mentally ill to that of two other "vulnerable groups"—juvenile offenders and defendants with intellectual disabilities—whom the court has exempted from the death penalty.  The application of the death penalty to these defendants, she said, "has been deemed unconstitutional because our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the 'worst of the worst' murderers for whom the death penalty is intended. They are less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their own defense and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These exact characteristics apply to individuals with severe mental illness." Citing national polls in 2014 and 2015, Bass said the American public "support[s] a severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty by a 2 to 1 majority." At least 8 state legislatures are expected to consider serious mental illness exemptions in 2017. Among those states is Virginia, where just this year, a jury disregarded prosecution and defense experts in the death penalty trial of Russell Brown and found him guilty despite testimony that he was insane and did not understand the nature or consequences of his actions. The jury ultimately sentenced Brown to life in prison, but, as University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett explained, "there was no statutory protection available against the highest punishment for a man who, by the admission of all experts, did not have the highest culpability." As does the ABA, Professor Garrett argues that a serious mental illness exemption is a safeguard that is necessary to reduce unfairness in the administration of capital punishment. "If lawmakers believe that we should retain the death penalty in Virginia," he wrote, "we must be confident that we are not sentencing to death severely mentally ill people who cannot be fully blamed for their actions." 


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OUTLIER COUNTIES: Non-Unanimous Jury Verdicts Highlight Systemic Flaws in Pinellas County, Florida Death Penalty

Pinellas County, Florida ranks among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death rows across the United States and among the 2% of counties responsible for more than half of all executions conducted in this country since 1977. The five death sentences imposed in Pinellas between 2010 and 2015 also place it, along with three other Florida counties, among the 16 U.S. counties with the highest number of new death sentences in the country. One major reason for Pinellas' status is the high number of death sentences it has imposed after juries returned non-unanimous sentencing recommendations, an outlier practice that the Florida Supreme Court recently declared unconstitutional. All six of the Pinellas death sentences the Florida Supreme Court reviewed on direct appeal from 2006-2015 involved non-unanimous juries. Only two of those cases garnered the 10 juror votes in favor of death that would have permitted a death verdict to be imposed under 2016 amendments to Florida law that attempted to address another constitutional flaw in the statute. The non-unanimity provisions facilitated the extremely harsh use of the death penalty by Pinellas' prosecutors against defendants with significant mental health problems. Five of these 6 death sentences were directed at defendants with serious mental illness, brain damage, or intellectual impairment; and one was directed as an emotionally disturbed defendant who -- at only few months past 18 years old at the time of the offense -- was barely constitutionally eligible for the death penalty. According to a report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project, none of the other 15 outlier counties who have produced the most death sentences in the U.S. since 2010 imposed it so disproportionately against mentally impaired defendants. This prosecutorial overreaching occurred against a backdrop of racial bias and bad defense lawyering. In the cases mentioned above, every defense attorney presented a day or less of mitigating evidence at trial. The trial judge sentenced Richard Todd Robard to death after a 7-5 jury vote; a 6-6 vote would have spared his life. But Robard's lawyer, Richard Watts, decided not to present evidence of his client's brain damage and mental health problems because he didn't think the jury would be swayed by "brain abnormalities." Amid other evidence of racially imbalanced law enforcement practices in the county, 60% of the defendants sentenced to death since 2010 were black and 67% of the victims in cases in which the death penalty was returned were white.


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Highlighting Growing Problem, California Attorney General Says Death Row Prisoner Too Mentally Ill to Execute

Saying that he has a permanent condition that makes him too mentally ill to execute, the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris (pictured) recently asked the California Supreme Court to remove Ronnie McPeters from California's death row and resentence him to life without parole. The action is rare because McPeters is not facing an imminent execution date, but Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin said his office now considers some death row prisoners so "grievously incompetent" that they will never be able to be executed. The office says that such prisoners should be declared incompetent to be executed and removed from death row. McPeters has been on death row for 30 years, and is one of nine California death row prisoners whom federal judges have found incompetent to assist their attorneys in habeas corpus appeals. His mental condition has further deteriorated while on death row, where he has received inconsistent mental health care: some prison doctors have involuntarily medicated him for schizophrenia, while another had him involuntarily retrained for five days before asserting that McPeters was faking his illness. According to prison records, McPeters has at various times spread his feces on himself and the walls, hoarded it for safekeeping, soaked himself in urine, and carried on conversations with a wife and children who do not exist, and is "tormented by the inner voices of the relatives" of the woman he murdered. He was first declared incompetent in 2007 by U.S. District Judge Lawrence O'Neill, who at a status conference six years later said, "We don’t have one scintilla of evidence ... that he is anything but incompetent." McPeters' case highlights a growing problem in California and across the nation. A Los Angeles Times investigation found 20 inmates, including McPeters, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, psychosis, or paranoia, and California recently became the first state to open a death row psychiatric ward, which was full to capacity within a year. 


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NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."


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Alabama Prepares to Execute 65-Year-Old Mentally Ill Prisoner Disabled by Several Strokes

UPDATE: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stayed Madison's execution, ordering oral argument on his competency claim. Previously: Alabama is preparing to execute Vernon Madison (pictured) on May 12, as his lawyers continue to press their claim that the 65-year-old prisoner is incompetent to be executed. Defense lawyers say Madison, whom a trial judge sentenced to death despite the jury's recommendation of a life sentence, suffers from mental illness and has additional cognitive impairments, retrograde amnesia, and dementia as a result of strokes in May 2015 and January 2016. The strokes also have caused a significant drop in Madison's IQ, which now tests at 72, within the range the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized as supporting a diagnosis of intellectual disability. In addition, the strokes have left Madison legally blind. In its 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to execute mentally incompetent prisoners, whom it defined as people who do not understand their punishment or why they are to be executed. Madison's lawyers have unsuccessfully argued in Alabama's state and federal courts that, because of his mental impairments, he is unable to understand why the state will execute him. An Alabama trial judge ruled earlier this month that Madison is competent, and the court denied his motion for a stay of execution. On May 6, he presented his competency claim to the federal district court, which denied relief on May 10. Madison's lawyers have appealed that ruling. Madison has been on death row for more than 30 years. His conviction for the murder of a white police officer has been overturned twice, once because prosecutors intentionally excluded black jurors from serving on the case and once because the prosecution presented improper testimony from an expert witness. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals upholding a death sentence imposed on Alabama death row prisoner Bart Johnson, and directed the state court to reconsider the constitutionality of Alabama's death-sentencing procedures. Madison's lawyers have sought review of his case in light of Johnson and are also seeking a stay of execution to permit him to litigate the constitutionality of the state's judicial override provisions. 


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Texas Court Finds Marcus Druery Mentally Incompetent, Spares Him From Execution

A Texas court has found that a severely mentally ill death-row inmate, Marcus Druery (pictured), is incompetent to be executed. Druery's attorneys presented more than 150 pages of reports from mental health professionals arguing that, as a result of major mental illness, Druery does not understand why he is being punished, making it unconstitutional to execute him. His "paranoid and grandiose delusions...deprive him of a rational understanding of the connection between his crime and punishment," one expert wrote. On April 4, the court agreed. Prosecutors did not contest Druery's claims of incompetency, but retain the right to petition for reconsideration in the future if Druery's mental state changes. Kate Black, one of Druery's attorneys, said, "The state has the duty to make certain it does not violate the Constitution by executing an individual, like Mr. Druery, who suffers from a psychotic disorder that renders him incompetent for execution. We are pleased that they have taken that duty seriously." Druery has long suffered from delusions and a psychotic disorder that doctors have consistently characterized as a form of schizophrenia. In 2009, his mental illness became so severe that he was transferred to a prison psychiatric unit. State doctors who have examined him since have consistently diagnosed him as delusional. An execution date was set for Druery in 2012, but he was granted a stay and, later, a competency hearing, which led to Monday's decision.


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Texas Scheduled to Execute Severely Mentally Ill Death-Row Prisoner

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit says that “Adam Kelly Ward (pictured) has been afflicted with mental illness his entire life.” Yet Texas will execute him on March 22 unless the U.S. Supreme Court grants him a stay to review his case. Ward's lawyers argue that the execution of a person who is severely mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and that, for that reason, Ward should not be executed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied review of that issue on March 14, saying that Ward should have raised it in previous state-court appeals. The Texas federal courts rejected a similar argument in 2015. While the U.S. Supreme Court has barred the execution of inmates who are so mentally incompetent that that they do not rationally comprehend that they are going to be executed or why, it has never ruled that executing inmates with severe mental illness is unconstitutional. Ward has consistently exhibited signs of severe mental illness since infancy, and was twice hospitalized for multi-week periods because of his illness. He suffered from uncontrollable rage episodes and two of his elementary schools built special padded isolation rooms in which he would be placed when he was out of control. The federal district court described him as delusional and having "difficulty with impulse control, bad judgment, poor insight, trouble sleeping and eating, mood swings, and bizarre behaviors." At trial, a psychiatrist testified that Ward's psychotic disorder caused him to "suffer paranoid delusions such that he believes there might be a conspiracy against him and that people might be after him or trying to harm him" and the federal district court agreed that as a result of his mental illness, Ward "interpreted neutral things as a threat or personal attack." In her statement concurring with the state court's denial of a stay of execution, Judge Elsa Alcala noted that no Supreme Court decision banned the execution of people with mental illness and that the power to do so rests with legislatures: "As is the case with intellectual disability, the preferred course would be for legislatures rather than courts to set standards defining the level at which a mental illness is so severe that it should result in a defendant being categorically exempt from the death penalty." 


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