Policy Issues

Mental Illness

There is no categorical ban on the execution of people with mental illness. A small number of states have laws that create an exemption for some seriously mentally ill defendants.

Resources on Severe Mental Illness and Death Penalty

Resources on Severe Mental Illness and Death Penalty

American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project

DPIC Report: Battle Scars

DPIC Report: Battle Scars

Military Veterans and the Death Penalty (Features information on PTSD and other combat-related mental health problems)

Overview

The U.S. Supreme Court has said a defendant’s mental illness makes him or her less morally culpability and must be taken into consideration as an important reason to spare his or her life. However, as was initially the case with intellectual disability and young age, the Court has not barred the death penalty for those with serious mental illness. When the Court prohibited the death penalty for the intellectually disabled and for juveniles, it found that they were members of identifiable groups who have diminished responsibility for their actions and hence should not be considered the worst and most culpable defendants. Many mental health experts believe that people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may have similar cognitive impairments that interfere with their decision-making. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Bar Association, among others, have called for a ban on the death penalty for those with severe mental illness.

Some defendants are so mentally ill as to lack all understanding of their crime and its consequences and may be considered mentally incompetent. Such individuals may be unfit to stand trial or be found not guilty by reason of insanity. If they are convicted and become incompetent while on death row, they cannot be executed, under earlier Supreme Court precedent. However, most people with mental illness — including many with severe mental illness — are not mentally incompetent.

Mental health issues have broad impact in death-penalty cases. One in ten prisoners executed in the United States are “volunteers” — defendants or prisoners who have waived key trial or appeal rights to facilitate their execution. Mental illness also affects defendants’ decisions to represent themselves, their ability to work with counsel, and jury’s perceptions of their motives and whether they pose a future danger to society if they are sentenced to life in prison.

At Issue

There are at least three hurdles to excluding the severely mentally ill: 1. Unlike age and intellectual ability, it is difficult to define the class of mentally ill defendants who should be exempted and to determine whether their illness affected their judgment when they offended. 2. States have so far been reluctant to adopt such bans, though society continues to evolve in terms of its understanding of mental illness. 3. The membership of the Supreme Court has shifted since some of the earlier exemptions were decided. Nevertheless, the prior decisions could serve as important precedents, capable of being extended to the mentally ill.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has tracked the various state legislative efforts to address the mental illness issue. It frequently highlights instances in which mentally ill defendants receive unfair death-penalty trials, face execution, or have been granted clemency or other relief. It also gathers statements from relevant leaders in the mental health field regarding this issue.

News & Developments


News

Apr 03, 2023

NEW VOICES: Former Florida Prison Psychiatrist Criticizes the Execution of Mentally Ill Prisoners

Dr. Joseph Thornton, a psy­chi­a­trist who for­mer­ly treat­ed death row pris­on­ers as the med­ical direc­tor of a Florida max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison, called for an end to the death penal­ty for those with severe men­tal ill­ness: We should not be exe­cut­ing any­one, let alone the sick and the bro­ken,” he said. As some­one with over 40 years’ expe­ri­ence see­ing patients with seri­ous men­tal ill­ness who are stig­ma­tized, ostra­cized and blamed for their symp­toms, I believe that recov­ery care, not ostra­ciza­tion, respects life and saves lives.”

Read More

News

May 13, 2024

Oklahoma Judge Finds Wade Lay Mentally Incompetent to Be Executed

Oklahoma pris­on­er Wade Lay (pic­tured) will not be exe­cut­ed on June 6, 2024 as sched­uled because a Pittsburg County judge has found him men­tal­ly incom­pe­tent to be exe­cut­ed. The avail­able evi­dence demon­strates, by a pre­pon­der­ance or greater weight of the evi­dence, that Mr. Lay is cur­rent­ly incom­pe­tent to be exe­cut­ed accord­ing to the gov­ern­ing legal stan­dards,” Judge Tim Mills wrote. Defense and state experts who exam­ined Mr. Lay found that, due to his schiz­o­phre­nia, delu­sions, and para­noia, he lacks a ratio­nal under­stand­ing of the rea­son for his exe­cu­tion, and the…

Read More

News

Apr 02, 2024

Following Stay of Execution, Oklahoma Court Finds Death-Sentenced Prisoner Incompetent to Be Executed Due to Serious Mental Illness

On March 28, Judge Michael Hogan of Pittsburg County ruled that James Ryder is incom­pe­tent to be exe­cut­ed after a hear­ing where experts estab­lished Mr. Ryder’s seri­ous men­tal ill­ness. “[We are] relieved the court reached the only log­i­cal con­clu­sion… James has no ratio­nal under­stand­ing of why Oklahoma plans to exe­cute him,” said Mr. Ryder’s attor­ney, Emma Rolls, fol­low­ing the deci­sion. James has suf­fered from schiz­o­phre­nia for near­ly 40 years and has lit­tle con­nec­tion to objec­tive real­i­ty.” Mr. Ryder, 62, was the first sched­uled exe­cu­tion of 2024 in Oklahoma before the…

Read More

News

Apr 01, 2024

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Removes Henderson County Man from Death Row Citing Intellectual Disability

On March 27, 2024, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) resen­tenced death row pris­on­er Randall Mays to life in prison with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of parole after an expert for the state con­ced­ed that the evi­dence pre­sent­ed by Mr. Mays’ attor­neys indi­cates he is intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­abled, and thus inel­i­gi­ble for the death penal­ty. Originally sen­tenced to death in 2008 for the mur­der of two Henderson County, Texas, sheriff’s deputies, Mr. Mays’ attor­neys have long argued that he should be exempt from fac­ing exe­cu­tion because of his dis­abil­i­ty. The evi­dence of…

Read More

News

Jan 08, 2024

Oklahoma Court Stays Scheduled Execution Pending Evaluation of Seriously Mentally Ill Prisoner

On December 22, 2023, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a 100-day stay of exe­cu­tion to car­ry out a men­tal com­pe­ten­cy hear­ing for James Ryder, who was sched­uled to be exe­cut­ed on February 1, 2024. Mr. Ryder’s attor­neys have argued for years that he is not com­pe­tent to face exe­cu­tion, cit­ing long stand­ing men­tal ill­ness that has wors­ened through­out his incar­cer­a­tion. Several psy­chol­o­gists have diag­nosed Mr. Ryder with para­noid schiz­o­phre­nia and con­clud­ed he is not com­pe­tent to face exe­cu­tion. Having reviewed the evi­dence, we find the mat­ter should be…

Read More

News

Dec 21, 2023

Former Death Row Prisoner Craigen Armstrong Pioneers Vital” Mental Illness Treatment Program in L.A. Jail

A new sto­ry by the L.A. Times high­lights for­mer California death row pris­on­er Craigen Armstrong’s instru­men­tal role in build­ing a peer-pris­on­er men­tal health treat­ment pro­gram in the Los Angeles Twin Towers Correctional Facility, an effort which has helped hun­dreds of pris­on­ers with severe men­tal ill­ness. While await­ing retri­al, Mr. Armstrong estab­lished the men­tal health assis­tant” role to sup­port and treat fel­low pris­on­ers, and has devel­oped train­ing mate­ri­als for jails and pris­ons across the coun­try to repli­cate his program’s success. 

Read More

News

Nov 16, 2023

After Due Process Disaster,” Texas Death Row Prisoner Whose Appeal Was Lost is Resentenced and Eligible for Parole

A death-sen­tenced pris­on­er whose appeal was lost for thir­ty years was resen­tenced to life with parole on November 14, 2023, when the Harris County, Texas District Attorney’s office said it is no longer pur­su­ing the death penal­ty. Syed Rabbani, a Bangladeshi nation­al, has been on death row since 1988 for a fatal Houston shoot­ing. Mr. Rabbani filed his appeal in 1994, but it remained pend­ing in the Harris County Court sys­tem until 2022, when the Harris County District Clerk’s Office redis­cov­ered the fil­ing among 100+ oth­er for­got­ten’ cas­es. Although severely…

Read More

News

Nov 02, 2023

Under Recent State Legislation, Courts in Ohio and Kentucky Rule Four Men Ineligible for Execution Due to Serious Mental Illness

Though the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution for­bids the death penal­ty for a per­son who is insane” at the time of exe­cu­tion, it has nev­er held that the exe­cu­tion of peo­ple with seri­ous men­tal ill­ness is uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. Experts have found that two in five peo­ple exe­cut­ed between 2000 and 2015 had a men­tal ill­ness diag­no­sis such as bipo­lar dis­or­der, schiz­o­phre­nia, or PTSD. Since 2017, at least eleven states have attempt­ed to strength­en pro­tec­tions for vul­ner­a­ble pris­on­ers by intro­duc­ing bills bar­ring the exe­cu­tion of those with seri­ous men­tal illness…

Read More

News

Oct 05, 2023

World Psychiatric Association Releases Report Opposing the Death Penalty for People with Mental Illness or Development and Intellectual Disabilities

In July 2023, the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) released its report and posi­tion state­ment on men­tal health and the death penal­ty. The issues addressed in the report include: the impo­si­tion of the death penal­ty on pris­on­ers with men­tal ill­ness or devel­op­men­tal and intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ties, the over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of death-sen­tenced pris­on­ers who have been socioe­co­nom­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al­ized, and the role of psy­chi­a­trists in death penal­ty cases. 

Read More

News

Sep 29, 2023

Federal District Court Finds Scott Panetti Not Competent for Execution

On September 28, 2023, the Western District Court of Texas ruled that the state can­not exe­cute Scott Panetti (pic­tured), a death row pris­on­er with a decades-long his­to­ry of seri­ous men­tal health issues and a diag­no­sis of schiz­o­phre­nia. Despite a state expert con­ced­ing Mr. Panetti’s seri­ous men­tal ill­ness, Texas argued that he is com­pe­tent to face exe­cu­tion because he has some degree” of ratio­nal under­stand­ing. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled, how­ev­er, that “[Mr.] Panetti is not sane enough to be exe­cut­ed” and that he lack[s] a ratio­nal under­stand­ing of the…

Read More