Mentally ill on death row

By: Liliana Segura

In one of its few humane 5-to-4 rulings this term, on June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the execution of 49-year old Texas prisoner Scott Panetti. Reaffirming its decision in Ford v. Wainwright, which banned the death penalty for the mentally ill, the Court concluded that Panetti suffered from severe schizophrenia, rendering him unfit to be executed.

Why the case ever reached the Court is a good question. Anyone in attendance at the original trial could see that something was wrong with Scott Panetti.

Defending himself, Panetti acted “bizarre,” “scary” and “trance-like” during his 1995 trial. According to the record, witnesses he tried to subpoena included John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and the Pope. Panetti’s mental incompetence was palpable; “The net effect...was to render the trial ‘a judicial farce, and a mockery of self-representation.’”

Despite this, Scott Panetti was sentenced to death.

Post-conviction appeals would center on whether Panetti was competent to be executed--not whether he had been mentally sound to represent himself in the first place. Thus are the true priorities of the law laid bare.

In the growing debate over mental illness and the death penalty, the issue of self-representation is just one dimension--but it’s an important one. As observed wryly by Slate.com legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick, “The legal standard for permitting self–representation is stunningly low: Basically, if you can read an Archie comic and blow your own nose, the courts will allow you to mount your own defense.”

The right of a defendant to act as his own counsel trumps nearly everything else--even if the result is a miscarriage of justice. If this is really an acceptable bargain, Lithwick asks, “How do we square it with the value we place on human life?”

It is commonly understood that the American criminal justice system “values human life” on a sliding scale when it comes to race and class. What is less widely understood is the deadly effect this scale has on the mentally ill.

The history of the modern death penalty is rife with examples. Some are names we know, like Manny Babbitt, a mentally ill Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who was executed in California in 1999 (His brother, Bill Babbitt, is a committed abolitionist and friend of the CEDP).

Others are anonymous. Daniel Colwell, schizophrenic and suicidal, murdered an elderly couple after being released from a mental institution in 1996 and turned himself in. He was sentenced to death following a trial in which even the judge concurred, “There’s no question he’s mentally ill.” In Colwell’s case, he was actively seeking a death sentence--a state-sanctioned suicide--and the jury was all too happy to comply. Colwell was executed in March 2003.

The past few years have brought important new findings about mental illness and the death penalty--as well as some perverse debates.

In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that the state of Arkansas could force a death row prisoner named Charles Singelton to take anti-psychotic medication to make him sane enough for execution. Noting that the drugs worked wonders for Singelton’s mental stability, the judge wrote, “Eligibility for execution is the only unwanted consequence of the medication.” Singelton was put to death on January 6, 2004.

The cruel reality is that death row is too often the final destination for mentally ill prisoners--many of them veterans--who already make up a disturbingly large portion of the prison population.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there may be as many as 285,000 mentally ill people warehoused in prisons across the country. Among juvenile prisoners, the numbers are worse. The D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice has estimated that 50 percent to 75 percent of teenagers in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental disorder.

The American Psychiatric Association says: “People with mental illnesses who come into contact with the criminal justice system are often poor, uninsured, homeless and living with co-occurring substance abuse and mental disorders.”

It’s bad enough that mental illness can be a lethal liability at trial (for example, while trial law holds that a defendant’s mental illness is supposed to be a mitigating factor, it often functions instead as an aggravating factor).

But once on death row, a mentally ill person is more likely to voluntarily surrender his or her post-conviction appeals. According to one study, more than 75 percent of the “volunteers” for execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment suffered from mental illnesses.

Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger once wrote that no defendant should be allowed to use the courtroom as “an instrument of self-destruction.” So long as the death penalty is considered a legitimate part of the criminal justice system, for society’s most vulnerable defendants, the court system is bound to be literally that.