Capital punishment as suicide

The case of Daniel Colwell


By: Cari Courtenay-Quirk

The story of Daniel Colwell demonstrates one of many things that are wrong with criminal justice in America: using the death penalty against the mentally ill. Daniel accomplished what had become a personal mission in January 2003. He committed suicide in his death row prison cell.

Hallucinations and paranoia plagued Daniel as early as high school. He heard voices and saw the gates of hell open up in the back of his classes. Saying that he was following God's orders, Daniel quit playing football in college and dropped out one semester before graduating. Daniel moved several times over the next few years. Once, he secretly traveled to California to seek treatment from a mental hospital there. He was diagnosed with depression, given a prescription and released the next day. His symptoms worsened.

Daniel moved back to his hometown in Americus, Ga., where he took a toy gun and a kitchen knife to a local TV station and demanded airtime to promote atheism. Again, he explained that he was following God's orders. Daniel was sentenced to probation and assigned state mental health services. His outpatient treatment over the next several years fell far short of his needs. He rarely saw the same doctor twice, he was only seen once every three months, and the medications he received made even the most basic self-care seem impossible. He began to believe that he would only know peace through death.

To convince the world that he had a right to die by execution, Daniel plotted to kidnap a well-known white man who he was willing to kill to ensure the death penalty. His plan was discovered, and he was arrested. Daniel was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison even though a state doctor gave a statement saying that prison would only worsen Daniel's mental condition. He attempted suicide at least once while in prison and was paroled in 1995.

Facing yet another year of inadequate treatment, Daniel came up with another deadly plan. In July 1996, Daniel went to the local Wal-Mart and killed a middle aged white couple in the parking lot, believing that two white victims would guarantee that the sentence of death. Immediately after, he drove to the police station to turn himself in.

Before his trial, Daniel was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and manic depression. Yet, he was found competent to stand trial. In defiance of his lawyers, Daniel pled guilty to the murders. He wrote letters to the judge, district attorney, community leaders, and other local citizens, to convince them that he deserved to die. In a statement to the jury, Daniel threatened them and described himself as a monster and a "cold-blooded murderer." Appallingly, the judge presiding over Daniel's case gave him advice on how to circumvent his lawyers' pursuit of further appeals.

After he was sentenced to death, Daniel expressed remorse over his actions. His moods changed with his medical treatments. Sometimes he was adamant about dying, particularly as an alternative to staying in prison for life. Other times he did not want to die and wished he could stay in the state mental hospital for life. But when the news broke this January that the governor of Illinois had commuted all death sentences to life in prison, Daniel feared that this victory for abolition would spread to Georgia. And he found a way to take his own life in his prison cell.

As his lawyer Michael Mears said, "If Daniel was sitting on the edge of a building in downtown Americus, every member of the community would have been out there trying to talk him down. Why weren't they there when he was trying to kill himself with the electric chair?"

Racism, classism, and neglect in the mental health and criminal justice systems served as the most reliable tools for self-destruction that Daniel could find. It is also an example of the painful trade-offs our society makes when we prioritize punishment over treatment. As an alternative, abolitionists must strongly argue for the expansion of the mental health system--not only for the prevention of such horrible tragedies, but for the treatment of those who commit crimes while truly not in control of their actions.

Author's note: I would like to thank Steve Colwell for sharing Daniel's story and representing his family throughout this painful saga, and the New Hope House Prison Ministry for giving Steve a venue for sharing Daniel's story in their most recent newsletter. Your courage and your love have no bounds, Steve. I would also like to thank the writers of the A&E television show, American Justice, for the special report on Daniel's case entitled "Suicide by Execution" that they ran several years ago. I borrowed from these sources for this story.