The American Bar Association does not have a policy supporting or opposing the death penalty. It does have extensive polices that help ensure capital punishment is administered fairly and with an adequate due process. Since 2006, there has been a specific policy opposing the execution of individuals with severe mental illness. In two seminal cases (2002 and 2005) the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute mentally ill offenders or juveniles because society considers both groups less morally culpable than the murders the death penalty is intended. The reasoning behind this ruling is because those that fall into those two categories are less able to appreciate the consequences of their own defense and are more likely to be wrongfully convicted.
Our legal system has a duty to pursue justice for the victims of violent crimes, but also has the duty to fit the punishment to the offender. Since 2006, there has been a specific policy opposing the execution of individuals with severe mental illness. It recommends that those with severe mental disorders should not be subject to capital punishment if, at the time of the crime, their disorder significantly impaired their ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions, to exercise rational judgement in relation to their behavior, or to conform their conduct to the requirement of the law. This policy is based largely on the concept that executing individuals with severe mental illnesses is no more justifiable than executing people with intellectual disabilities or even juveniles who have committed capitol crime.
In 2002 and 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute mentally ill offenders or juveniles because society considers both groups less morally culpable than the murders the death penalty is intended for. They are less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, assist their defense counsel, and are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These exact characteristics apply to offenders with severe mental illness. An exemption from the death penalty must be established for individuals with severe mental illness.
Mental illness can be described in a variation. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as, “any of various conditions and characterized by impairment of any individual’s normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic or other factors, such as infection or head trauma. Also known as emotional illness, mental disorder, and mental disorder”. The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes illness as medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. Intellectual disabilities are different than mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities are also referred to as “mental retardation”.
Jury studies have shown that mental illness is often considered “aggravating” by jurors, when the law intends it to be considered as “mitigating”. An aggravating factor is when the jury thinks the defendant will pose a future danger to society if allowed to live. Juries are confusing the legal standard, and this sometimes leads to thinking that mental illness should increase one’s punishment, such as the death sentence, when really it is meant in considering decreasing one’s punishment.
Severe mental illness can affect the defendant’s ability to make an informed decision, such as waiving their Miranda rights, allowing evidence to be presented in “mitigation”, waiving appeal, and cooperating with the defense counsel. During trial, defendants who are experiencing active symptoms may become agitated, or unable to comfort themselves. Often being misinterpreted by the jury as signs of being dangerous. So, the defendant’s functional impairments may increase the risk of receiving a death sentencing.
In the case of William Morva age 35, he was scheduled to execution in Virginia on July 6, 2017. A court appointed psychiatrist diagnosed William with delusional disorder and determined that this condition contributed to the crimes that he was sentenced to death. However, during his trial the jury was not informed about this serious mental disability.
In August of 2006, William had been in Montgomery County Jail in Virginia for a year awaiting trial. He was waiting on the charges of attempted robbery. During this time, the jail- as most are- was overcrowded, and understaffed. Its profusion of medical and mental health care was inadequate. While in this center, his condition only worsened, and he believe that his physical health was deteriorating considerably, threatening his life. On August 20, William was transported to the hospital at his own request of needing medical attention.
Little did the deputy that was accompanying him know, this was an escape plan. While at the hospital, William attacked the deputy, taking his gun. He got away, only after shooting and killing an unarmed hospital security guard. The next day there has a sighting of William Morva and when a Sheriff Deputy responded to the call, he was also shot and killed by Morva. Later that day the police located William, arrested him and charged him with capital murder and was later convicted in 2008. During the sentencing phase the defense presented a psychiatrist and neuropsychologist who both testified that William had a personality disorder, but that it did not rise to the level of a serious mental disability. They told the jurors that he had odd beliefs but that he did not experience delusions, the jury voted for death.
In 2012, a psychologist reviewed all the present material, including William’s extensive family history of psychological disorders. This was a critical assessment that was conducted for the trial, identifying Williams persistent somatic, paranoid, and grandiose delusions with a clear history of psychiatric deterioration prior to the crime. “His somatic delusions may have formed nexus with the crimes in that he apparently believed he was dying because of his ‘ailment’, motivating his escape attempt.”
In 2014, another court appointed psychiatrist conducted another evaluation diagnosing him with delusional disorder, persecutory type. She claims that he committed his crimes because of the delusions that he was experiencing. She also advised that he be treated with medication, claiming that he was not able to assist his attorneys. Despite these claims, during appeal the evidence presented, by following procedural rules prevented the court from deciding if he had this mental disorder and if his crimes were a product of it.
In 2015, William was brought to trial again, and had not been a disciplinary problem in any pre-trial proceedings or in eighteen months of pre-trial detention. He was still made to wear an electro-shock stun belt during trial. The jurors observed the bulge the belt caused under his clothes, implying that this force was necessary to control him. In 1998, a Washington State Appeal Court ruled that this kind of perception could tip the balance towards a death sentence, when used in a capital case.
With the combination of the shock box being prejudicial, and the prosecutor’s statement, William had no chance. “It is impossible to conclude that the defendant will never escape. He is smarter than the others, and he is always thinking… We’re talking about a prisoner here who hurts guards, beating them. We’re talking about a prisoner who shoots uniformed officers… the prospect of life in prison is very frightening because if after only one year in jail you’re killing people than what is the prospect of life in prison going to cause that person to feel justified in doing to those prison guards?” William Morva died of lethal injection at 9:15 p.m. on July 6, 2017 at the Greensville Correctional Center, in Greensville County Virginia.
Jack Greene, age 62 was convicted in 1992 for the murder of Sidney Burnett the year before. He was scheduled to be executed in Arkansas November 9, 2017. Jack has been diagnosed with psychotic disorder, including delusional beliefs of a conspiracy between his lawyer and the state. His lawyer states, “Greene’s mental disability has manifested itself through bizarre physical behavior”. Also saying that his mental disability has only worsened in the past thirteen years. Jack has spent fourteen years in Varner Supermax, in a 12 x 7.5 ft. cell, behind a solid steel door, in almost constant isolation.
In October of 2004, Greene’s lawyer filed a claim that Jack has intellectual disability and that his execution would therefore be unconstitutional. But at a federal court hearing in 2010, Jack testified against his lawyers wishes, withdrawing the claim. At a competency hearing in 2011, a neuropsychologist and a neuropsychiatrist testified stating that Jack was too incompetent to waive his intellectual disability claim. Jack Greene was not executed on his date, and has extended his stay at the supermax prison.
International law says that the death penalty cannot be carried out on people with mental or intellectual disabilities, and this applies whether the disability was relevant at the time of the crime or developed after the person was convicted
State representative in Texas, Toni Rose has filed House Bill 3080, to prevent offenders confirmed to have a severe mental illness at the time of their crime from being sentenced to death in a capitol murder case. Under this bill a defense lawyer would be allowed to ask for a hearing at least thirty days before a capitol murder trial to determine if a defendant had a severe mental illness. To quality as exempt, defendants would have to prove they had a medical diagnosis or documented symptoms, and that they acted because of psychotic symptoms that restricted their ability of rational judgment or understand the consequences of their actions. If mental illness was confirmed, the maximum penalty a jury could hand down would be life without parole.
The Texas Tribute couldn’t get many Republicans to weigh in on this idea, however, conservative Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge, Elsa Alcala, hinted that she wanted the Legislature to look at the issue. In 2016, she wrote, “as in the case with intellectual disability, the preferred course would be for legislature 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”.
Republican State Representative, James White, chairman of the House Corrections Committee has filed his own bill to create a state-funded office to help represent death penalty defendants during their appeals.
Alongside bill supporters from the mental health and religious communities, Rose argued that people with severe mental illness should get the same protections from the death penalty that juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities get. She also pushed the bill’s fiscal impact, arguing it would save taxpayer money by removing a sentencing trial if the defendant is ruled severely mentally ill and cut down on appeals of mentally ill death row inmates. Greg Hansch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness backs up her argument with the statement, “we know of examples of people who ended up on death row despite being profoundly ill. Some are eventually executed. Others are ping-ponged back and forth in the appeals process for years, even decades, while the taxpayer foots the bill”. Aside from Texas, seven other states have filed or plan to file similar legislation, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. However, none have passed it.