Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

by Sarah Swig for

“Today, at 6pm, the State of Florida is scheduled to kill my brother, Thomas Provenzano, despite clear evidence that he is mentally ill…. By no means do I suggest my brother go free. By all means justice should be done. But I have to wonder: Where is the justice in killing a sick human being?” — Sister of death row inmate, June 2000

Thomas Provenzano was executed by lethal injection by the state of Florida on June 21, 2000. He had a history of mental illness and paranoid schizophrenia predating his crime, yet his family could not afford hospitalization for his illness. Moreover, he believed he was Jesus Christ, and believed he was being killed because he was Jesus Christ. Provenzano’s sister wrote a letter to then-Governor Jeb Bush saying “as you know, Thomas is severely mentally ill. He believes he is Jesus Christ and that he is going to be executed because people hate Jesus”. Similarly, Provenzano’s lawyers requested additional time before his execution date so he could be examined by psychiatrists. A trial judge even came to the conclusion that Provenzano believed he faced execution because he was Jesus. Despite the evidence that Provenzano was mentally ill, he was executed by the State of Florida and with the approval of Governor Jeb Bush.

Cases such as Provenzano’s are all too common: Mental Health America (MHA) estimates that 5-10% of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness. MHA has taken a policy stance against the death penalty, explaining that “mental health conditions 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 National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also has stood against capital punishment. NAMI calls the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for those with severe mental disorders and a “distraction from the problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly lead to tragic violence”. For these reasons, MHA has called upon states to suspend using the death penalty, and NAMI has called for a ban on the death penalty for those with severe mental illnesses.

How Mental Illness Affects Capital Punishment

1. Police Interrogation: Mentally ill defendants are more likely to give false confessions and are more vulnerable to police pressure. Mentally ill defendants are also likely to have difficulty understanding their Miranda rights, often waiving their right to an attorney.

2. Competency to Stand Trial: The US Constitution states that a defendant must be competent to stand trial, meaning the defendant must have a “rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings” (ACLU). However, defendants with schizophrenia and / or severe delusions generally do not understand the proceedings, and should therefore not be declared competent enough to stand trial. Still, many schizophrenic defendants, like Thomas Provenzano, go to trial, rather than a state mental hospital to improve the defendant’s mental state. Similarly, mentally ill defendants often fire their lawyers or choose to represent themselves because they (wrongfully) believe they are capable to defend themselves. For example, Pernell Ford, who was executed in Alabama in 2000, represented himself at trial. Ford spent much of his childhood in mental health institutions, attempted suicide several times, and had little formal education. He fired his lawyers, dropped his appeals, and wore a bedsheet to the penalty phase of his execution, saying he wanted the victims’ bodies brought to court so God could resurrect him. Previously, Ford’s lawyer had won him a stay of execution by questioning Ford’s sanity, yet a federal appeals court ruled that Ford was competent enough to fire his attorney and drop the appeals.

3. Insanity: The ACLU reports that juries “frequently reject insanity defenses in capital cases despite strong evidence that the defendants are suffering from serious mental illnesses at the time of the crime”. This results in guilty verdicts, which later turn into death penalty sentences.

4. Ability to form a criminal intent: States must prove that defendants specifically intended to kill the victim in most capital murder cases. Yet mentally ill individuals usually lack the ability to form the specific intent to kill, but are still found guilty in criminal cases.

The Legality of Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

The legality of executing a mentally ill person should be clear. In 1986, in Ford v. Wainright, the United States Supreme Court upheld that insane individuals cannot be executed. Justice Marshall’s opinion discussed the “evolving standards of the Eighth Amendment” to prohibit states from inflicting the death penalty on someone who is insane, not aware of his execution and the reasons for it. Next, in 2002, in Atkins v. Virginia, the US Supreme Court ruled that executing mentally retarded individuals also violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court found that the Eighth Amendment should be interpreted with “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”. In Panetti v. Quarterman, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that an individual cannot be executed if he is incompetent at the time of his execution, arguing that a defendant must have a “rational understanding of the reason for the execution”.

Past Executions

Yet despite these cases, states have executed mentally ill prisoners, using legal loopholes surround the definitions of an “insane” person or using unscientific standards to define an intellectual disability. Below are definitions from NAMI of two of the major mental illnesses defendants on death row have, and four cases in which people suffering from these illnesses were executed.

Schizophrenia: Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder that affects approximately 2.2 million adults in the USA. It interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, to make decisions and to relate to others. The 1st signs of schizophrenia typically emerge in the teenage years or early 20s. Most people with schizophrenia suffer chronically or episodically throughout their lives, and are often stigmatized by a lack of public understanding about the disease. A person with schizophrenia does not have a “split personality”, and almost all people with schizophrenia are not dangerous or violent towards others when they are receiving treatment. The World Health Organization has identified schizophrenia as 1 of the 10 most debilitating diseases affecting humans.

Symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations – hearing voices when no one has spoken or seeing things that are not there – and delusions such as believing that people are reading their mind, controlling their thoughts or plotting against them.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can occur after someone experiences a traumatic event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror. The traumatic events can include war, childhood abuse, rape, natural disasters, accidents and captivity. Symptoms include re-experiencing (e.g. nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations); avoidance (e.g. lack of recall of the traumatic event, limited range of emotion, feelings of detachment from others, feelings of hopelessness about the future); and increased arousal (e.g. inability to sleep, irritability, outbursts of anger, inability to concentrate, watchfulness, jumpiness).

1. John Errol Ferguson was convicted of murders occurring in 1977 and sentenced to death in 1983. Yet as far back as 1965, before his crime, Ferguson suffered from “visual hallucinations” and was sent to state mental institutions throughout the 1970s. In these institutions, a doctor diagnosed him as “grossly psychotic”, and Ferguson was found to be a paranoid schizophrenic, delusional, and aggressive. In 1975, a doctor wrote that Ferguson was “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances”. Still, he was released a year later, and soon after committed the crimes that left eight people dead. Ferguson believed that he was the “Prince of God” and could “control the sun”. His attorney maintained that he was “insane and incompetent for execution”. Yet the Florida Supreme Court found that he was competent enough to die, despite using a test for mental illness that the US Supreme Court has rejected. After decades of legal hurdles and appeals, John Errol Ferguson was executed by lethal injection on August 5, 2013 in Florida.

2. Charles Singleton was convicted of stabbing Mary Lou York to death in Arkansas. After his imprisonment, a prison psychiatrist diagnosed Singleton as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and a panel ordered him to take antipsychotic drugs. His lawyers filed a lawsuit saying the state could not force him to take medication in order to make him mentally competent enough to execute him. Despite the Ford v. Wainright case which prohibited the use of the death penalty against an incompetent individual, Charles Singleton was executed on January 6, 2004.

3. Jay D. Scott was convicted for the 1983 murder of Vinnie Prince. Since the age of 13, he spent all but 28 months in prison. He was a diagnosed schizophrenic, had a low IQ, and suffered from an abusive childhood. According to Amnesty International, five jurors from his trial signed declarations under oath saying they may have decided differently if mitigating evidence of mental disorders and his abusive childhood had been presented by Scott’s attorneys, and 2 jurors said they definitely would have voted differently had the mitigating evidence been presented. Despite this, Jay D. Scott was executed by lethal injection on June 14, 2001 in Ohio.

4. Manny Babbitt, a U.S. marine veteran of the Vietnam War, was convicted of murdering Leah Schendel in 1980. Babbit’s lawyers argued he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his time in Vietnam. He had previously spent 2 years in mental institutions and was found to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Mental health experts and Babbit’s lawyers argued that Babbitt attacked Ms. Schendel in a flashback, as evidenced by the fact that Babbitt wrapped a leather strap around Ms. Schendel’s ankle – the same way the soldiers did to the dead in the Vietnam War. They argued he not be executed as a result. Babbitt never denied murdering Ms. Schendel, but rather argued that he did not remember doing it. Manny Babbit was executed by lethal injection on May 4, 1999 in California.

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