Answering the hard questions: Mental illness

“Over the past thirty years, the number of people with mental
illness and other mental disabilities on death row has steadily increased.” -Mental Health America

International law clearly outlaws the execution of persons with mental illness. Virtually every country in the world prohibits the execution of those who are considered “insane.” However, our legal understanding of mental illness has not kept pace with our medical knowledge. Thus, to be deemed “mentally competent” to face execution, a person is only required to know that he/she is going to be executed and why.

In Ford v Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that “inflicting the death penalty upon a prisoner who is insane” violates the U.S. Constitution. However, it is estimated that 5-10% of death row inmates suffer from serious mental illness (Mental Health America’s “Position Statement 54: Death Penalty and People with Mental Illness”).

At least 100 of those executed in the U.S.A. since 1977 suffered from mental illness, representing about 10% of those put to death nationwide during this period. (Amnesty International’s Report “The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders,” 2006).


Robert Glen Coe, the first person Tennessee executed in the modern era, suffered from serious mental illness. At his trial, some experts testified that he was psychotic and schizophrenic. In 1975, Coe was found incompetent to stand trial in Florida on another charge. Coe was executed on April 19, 2000.

In 2008 Richard Taylor had his conviction and death sentence reversed by an appeals court and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Taylor, twice forced to stand trial despite his serious mental illness, agreed to a sentence of life without parole in exchange for pleading guilty to the 1981 murder of a Tennessee correctional officer— a crime committed only after prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication.

In 2001, Gregory Thompson was so mentally incompetent that he was appointed a conservator to make decisions about what medications he should take. He suffers from delusional thought processes, psychosis, auditory and visual hallucinations, and is suicidal. The state now claims that Thompson is sane enough to be executed.

Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman has a history of serious mental problems. He was physically tortured by his father as a young child. As part of his post- conviction appeals, six mental health experts have diagnosed Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman as suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder and/or borderline personality disorder. He has been on death row for over 20 years.


The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) believes the death penalty is never appropriate for a defendant suffering from a serious brain disorder or for those suffering with serious mental illness.

Mental Health America believes that mental illness can influence an individual’s mental state at the time he or she commits a crime, can affect how “voluntary” and reliable an individual’s statements might be, can compromise a person’s competence to stand trial and to waive his or her rights, and may have an effect upon a person’s knowledge of the criminal justice system.

The American Psychological Association (APA) calls upon each jurisdiction in the United States that imposes capital punishment not to carry out the death penalty until the jurisdiction implements policies and procedures that can be shown through psychological and other social science research to ameliorate the deficiencies identified in its 2001 resolution on the death penalty.

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