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

American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project

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.”

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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…

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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. 

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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…

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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…

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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. 

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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…

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News

Sep 28, 2023

Guantanamo Bay Judge Rules 9/​11 Capital Defendant Mentally Incompetent to Stand Trial

On September 21, 2023, a mil­i­tary judge in Guantanamo Bay ruled that Ramzi Bin al Shibh, one of five defen­dants in the 9/​11 case for whom the death penal­ty is being sought, is men­tal­ly incom­pe­tent to stand tri­al. Mr. Bin al Shibh, who has been detained for 21 years, will remain in cus­tody at Guantanamo as author­i­ties attempt to treat the post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der caused when he was forced to under­go enhanced inter­ro­ga­tions” by the U.S. government.

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News

Sep 07, 2023

9/​11 Victims’ Family Members, Members of Congress Urge Biden Administration to Abandon Plea Negotiations with Guantanamo Detainees

Family mem­bers of some of the vic­tims of 9/​11 have asked the Biden Administration to aban­don cur­rent plea nego­ti­a­tions with Guantánamo detainees that would remove the pos­si­bil­i­ty of death sen­tences for the men accused of plan­ning the 9/​11 ter­ror attacks. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and his four co-defen­dants have been held for more than twen­ty years, first at CIA black sites where they were sub­ject to enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques” and then at Guantánamo, but none has pro­ceed­ed to tri­al. The request came after fam­i­ly mem­bers were noti­fied by the Pentagon on August…

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News

Sep 05, 2023

Sole Woman on Tennessee Death Row, Age 18 at Time of Crime, Raises New Appeal Based on Youthfulness

Attorneys for Christa Pike, the only woman on Tennessee’s death row, filed a motion on August 30 to re-open her appeals based on a recent deci­sion from the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 2022, the Court ruled in State v. Booker that manda­to­ry life sen­tences in homi­cide cas­es are uncon­sti­tu­tion­al when imposed on juve­niles, draw­ing on U.S. Supreme Court prece­dent that held that juve­niles are less mature, more vul­ner­a­ble to peer pres­sure, and gen­er­al­ly less cul­pa­ble than adults. Ms. Pike’s attor­neys argue that Bookers rea­son­ing applies to all youth­ful defen­dants, not…

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News

Aug 15, 2023

Charles Ogletree, Death Penalty Scholar and Criminal Defense Advocate, Dies at 70

Charles Ogletree, Jr., a pas­sion­ate advo­cate for racial and crim­i­nal jus­tice, died on August 4, 2023, after a long ill­ness. As a tenured pro­fes­sor at Harvard University, Professor Ogletree spoke and wrote often about the death penal­ty and men­tored many stu­dents, includ­ing both Barack and Michelle Obama. In a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, he crit­i­cized the use of the death penal­ty in the United States, par­tic­u­lar­ly for peo­ple with severe men­tal ill­ness, brain impair­ments, or who suf­fer from the effects of severe trau­ma. He not­ed that bar­ring the death penalty…

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