STUDIES: 21st-Century Executions Disproportionately Involve Defendants With Mental Illness

A new study of the case records of the men and women executed in the United States between 2000 and 2015 has found that 21st-century executions disproportionately involve prisoners diagnosed with mental illness and who have experienced traumatic child abuse. In The Washington Post's data feature, Monkey Cage, Professor Frank Baumgartner and Betsy Neill of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill write that "[m]ost Americans oppose the death penalty for the mentally ill. But our research suggests that the death penalty actually targets those who have mental illnesses." The authors' examination of case files found that 43% of the executed prisoners had received a mental illness diagnosis at some point in their lives, more than double the 18% of people in the general population who have ever been diagnosed with any mental illness. 4% of Americans have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Personality disorders and depression were the most commonly diagnosed illnesses among those executed, but executed death-row prisoners also had significantly higher rates of such serious disorders as schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder. Evidence of mental illness—and depression in particular—was especially prevalent among those prisoners who waived their appeals and "volunteered" for execution. 63% of volunteers had a mental illness diagnosis, compared to 39% of others who were executed. More than one-quarter (26%) of volunteers had been diagnosed with depression, 37% had documented suididal tendencies, and nearly one-third (32%) had attempted suicide, leading the authors to suggest, "If suicidal tendencies are evidence of mental illness, then death penalty states actively assist suicide." Rates of childhood trauma—a risk factor for mental illness—were also dramatically higher among executed prisoners than among the general public. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates about 10% of U.S. children are abused or neglected, but nearly 40% of executed prisoners had been abused. The study found that executed death row prisoners were 13 times more likely than U.S. children as a whole to have been sexually abused, 13 times more likely to have been physically abused, and twice as likely to have been neglected by their caregivers. According to the authors, "The CDC and independent researchers have repeatedly found that childhood trauma’s long-term effects include higher likelihoods of disrupted neuro-development, cognitive impairment, mental illness, and becoming the perpetrator or victim of violence." (Click image to enlarge.) 

(F. Baumgartner and B. Neill, "Does the death penalty target people who are mentally ill? We checked." The Washington Post, April 3, 2017.) See Mental Illness and Studies.