Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Executing the mentally ill

"I’ve got one thing to say, get your Warden off this gurney and shut up. I am from the island of Barbados. I am the Warden of this unit. People are seeing you do this."
--Final statement of Monty Delk, mentally ill man executed in Texas on 28 February 2002

Ricky Rector had shot himself in the head prior to his arrest. The bullet wound and subsequent surgery resulted in the loss of a large section of the front of his brain. As his execution approached, the death watch log maintained by prison personnel at the Cummins Unit in Varner revealed an inmate displaying clear signs that he was seriously mentally disabled. The log’s entry for 21 January 1992, for example, described Ricky Rector as "dancing in his cell.... Howling and barking while sitting on his bunk.... Walking back and forth in the Quiet Cell snapping his fingers on his right hand and began noises with his voice like a dog." Whether or not to proceed with his execution, a journalist later wrote, "became a test in Arkansas of the lengths to which a society would pursue the old urge to expiate one killing by performing another – and a test of the state’s highest temporal authority, the governor, who alone could stop it."

"Some people did get access to come into my brain against every law and make odvious scrabble word games and show me horrible gouls lunging at my face like every dam second of every dam day and knight now for 2 years…It’s torture. I can’t sleep hallucinating with all of these voices I hear. Medical help needed right away!"
--Thomas Provenzano, grievance form, 1 August 1995, death row Florida. Provenzano was executed in 2000.

"Mr Panetti holds a Kafkaesque belief that the State of Texas, in league with demonic forces, wants to execute him to prevent him from preaching God’s word. His belief is genuine. His belief is not grounded in reality. His belief is the product of his delusions brought on by severe mental illness… Although he appears to have a factual awareness of the State’s professed reason for his impending execution, the nature of his mental illness causes him to misperceive the logical connection between his murder of his parents-in-law and his penalty of death. He does not have a rational understanding of the reason for his execution."
--From a brief written by Panetti's post-conviction attorney. Panetti, who faced execution last year, remains on death row pending final appeals.

What do all these cases have in common? They are examples of people sent to death row (and, in the first three cases, later executed) despite the fact that they suffered from severe mental illness.

Today Amnesty International released a report dealing with this topic. The report suggests that about 10 percent of the 1,000-plus people who have been executed over the course of the past quarter century were severely mentally ill.

Culpability is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. If I, God forbid, get into a car, back out of the driveway and run over a child, that is a very different crime from, say, deliberately and premeditatively committing a murder. Part of culpability goes to mindset. Neither a mentally ill person nor a mentally retarded person can be held to the same standard of culpability as one who is not mentally ill nor mentally retarded.

Is that so very difficult to understand? Then why are we still executing people who are severely mentally ill?

To read Amnesty International's report, go here. Way to go, guys!

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