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).
TADP is part of a coalition working on passing a bill to exclude the death penalty as an option for those with severe mental illness. The Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (TASMIE) is a coalition of mental health advocates and other organization educating Tennesseans about their concerns with sentencing those with severe mental illness to death. Please visit TASMIE.org for more information on this campaign and how you can get involved.
THE DEATH PENALTY AND MENTAL ILLNESS IN TENNESSEE
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 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.
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. The state does not track the full costs of these cases, but the best, conservative estimates show that seeking death for Taylor cost Tennessee taxpayers at least $1,850,974.
In 2018, Billy Ray Irick was executed in Tennessee though he had lifelong, severe, well-documented mental illness that included a 10-month in-patient stay at a psychiatric hospital when he was just eight years old. Mr. Irick’s extensive history of mental illness has shaped every aspect of his life, and led to a tragic crime, but accurate information about his mental illness was never heard by the jury who sent him to death row. Despite the expert opinion of eight mental health experts who have examined Mr. Irick or reviewed his case and determined he has mental illness.
No information about Mr. Irick’s severely psychotic state at the time of crime was investigated or presented during his capital trial, or his initial post-conviction appeal. The extent of information presented at his trial was the state’s psychiatric expert, Dr. Clifton Tennison, who spent one hour interviewing Mr. Irick and testified that there was no evidence of mental illness. Years later, after reviewing more complete information about Mr. Irick’s case, Dr. Tennison recanted that testimony, stating, “I am concerned that in light of this new evidence, my previous evaluation and the resulting opinion were incomplete and therefore not accurate… It is my professional opinion to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that without further testing and evaluation, no confidence should be placed in Mr. Irick’s 1985 evaluations of competency to stand trial and mental condition at time of defense.”
Dr. Tennison presented this testimony to the District Court, but unfortunately the court determined that it could not consider the merits of this important new evidence because of a technicality. Consequently, because the evidence about Mr. Irick’s mental health history and psychotic state at the time of the crime was only discovered after his conviction and initial appeal, this crucial information has never been considered by any court.
In 2019, Tennessee executed Stephen West, a man with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Doctors working for the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) diagnosed him and treated him with a regimen of powerful anti-psychotic medications beginning in 2001. Without these medications, Steve’s mental status would likely deteriorate to a point where he could become incompetent to be executed. His extensive history of childhood abuse and mental illness has shaped every aspect of his life, leading to a tragic crime, but information about this history was never provided to his jury. Despite his severe mental illness, Steve has a good disciplinary record and is not a threat to prison personnel.
It is unconscionable that the State of Tennessee treated his severe mental illness, rendering him competent, only then to execute him.
POSITIONS OF NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH ORGANIZATIONS
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.