Consistent Inconsistency: Sentencing Defendants with Severe Mental Illness

On July 7, Virginia executed William Morva for the 2006 murders of hospital security guard Derrick McFarland and sheriff’s deputy Cpl. Eric Sutphin after Morva escaped from custody. Morva’s execution came hours after Virginia’s Democratic governor Terry McCauliffe announced he would not grant clemency despite pressure from mental health advocates, state lawmakers, and attorneys who said Morva’s crimes were the result of serious mental illness, though the jury never heard about its severity.

Meanwhile, the state of Texas continues to try to kill Scott Panetti, institutionalized at least a dozen times because of his severe mental illness, who murdered his estranged in-laws in 1992. Panetti was allowed to represent himself at trial, wearing a purple bandana around his neck, a cowboy hat, and suspenders. He tried to call the Pope, Jesus Christ, and John F. Kennedy to the witness stand. His case continues to be litigated, with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals recently determining that Panetti must receive paid legal counsel, assistance from mental health experts that can help him build his case, and a full hearing to determine whether he is competent to be executed.

In other cases, juries are choosing not to give the death penalty to such defendants, though prosecutors are still asking for it. On July 26, in Jackson County, Mississippi, a judge sentenced Scotty Lakeith Street, who had a long history of chronic paranoid schizophrenia, to life without possibility of parole after the jury could not reach a unanimous sentencing verdict in his capital trial. He was convicted of murdering retired special education teacher Frankie Fairley, stabbing her 37 times. His attorneys presented evidence from family members, caregivers, and mental health experts of his lifelong history of “erratic” behavior, which two psychiatrists called “chronic and severe” mental illness. Witnesses described Street’s bizarre behavior, including putting plastic bags on his head “to keep his brain from leaking out,” swallowing nails, painting his body, and running naked in public.

A 2014 poll found that Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by more than a 2-1 margin. That has been reflected in a number of high-profile jury verdicts in the last few years in cases involving those with severe mental illness like James Holmes, who killed twelve people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and Joseph McEnroe, who murdered six members of his girlfriend’s family near Seattle.

TADP believes the best solution to these inconsistent results is to repeal the death penalty so that no juror is put in the position of determining who lives and who dies. Short of that, excluding those with severe mental illness from the death penalty is a common sense way to address at least some of the inconsistency plaguing the current system. Such a reform would also save the state millions of dollars that could then be used to treat these individuals before a murder occurs while also sparing victims’ families decades of litigation that will certainly accompany the death sentence.

It makes no sense to continue to accept such inconsistent sentencing. Something needs to change. The Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (TASMIE) wants to make that change by advocating for the exclusion of those with the most severe mental illnesses from the death penalty. Though this exclusion falls short of what we need in Tennessee, the total repeal of the death penalty, it at least protects very sick people from execution, saves money, and give victims’ families some measure of legal finality as soon as the trial is over.


Photo of William Morva


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