Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Although in its 1986 ruling in Ford v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to execute a person who is insane, every year individuals suffering from severe and persistent mental illness continue to be sentenced to death and executed in this country. A recent editorial in The New York Times highlights the case of Abdul Awkal, an Ohio death row inmate who was scheduled to be executed last Wednesday, but whose life was at least temporarily spared when Governor John Kasich granted a two week reprieve to allow for a thorough hearing.

Awkal, who was convicted of killing his wife and brother-in-law in 1992, has suffered from severe mental illness for decades. He lived through eight years of civil war in his home country of Lebanon before escaping to the U.S. and is thought to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has a history of mental breakdowns, suicidal depression, and hallucinations, and was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder. He has been deemed by several courts to be too mentally incompetent to assist in his own defense and he believes he is an advisor to the CIA and is being executed because he has angered them, and they want him dead.

Early last week, a state trial judge found that there was enough evidence to justify a hearing about Awkal’s sanity, but said there was not time to obtain witnesses, and he did not have the power to issue a stay of execution. The Ohio Supreme Court refused to grant a stay before Governor Kasich stepped in.

If a thorough review of Awkal’s history of severe and persistent mental illness would’ve been taken into consideration long ago, perhaps a death sentence could have been avoided. Perhaps millions of dollars could’ve been saved and used instead on mental health treatment and prevention services. As the editorial concludes, however, Awkal’s story is not uncommon. “The death penalty system fails to take adequate account of severe mental illness, whether at trial, at sentencing or in postconviction proceedings. This is yet another reason the penalty should be abolished and further evidence of the grave injustices committed in this system.”

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