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Death for the Insane

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Joe killed his parents. And his wife. And his daughter. And his dog. Even better, he tied them all to chairs, minus the dog, of course, who was simply leashed tightly to the furnace, in his basement where he would then utilize his array of power tools, bought with his average middle class salary, to mutilate the bodies of his supposed loved ones, in an effort to frame a nonexistent armed robber and collect the precious insurance money. His plan failed and he was caught. His defense decided that it would be most beneficial to find him to be mentally insane, suffering from paranoid schizophrenia among other psychological disorders. This discovery, though, was found once the defendant was already on death row. Now juries and prosecutors and millions of Americans are entirely unsure of what to do, kill him on account of the atrocities he committed or spare him for he had no idea of what he was doing or that it was wrong. The debate rages on and this man's case is thrust into the hands of the Supreme Court, the entire nation remains polarized on either side of the argument failing to come to a logical conclusion. The beauty of capital punishment.

Although fictitious and exaggerated, the story above is a combination of multiple capital punishment cases in which the defendant was found to be “mentally insane” or “mentally retarded”, two notably different things, and the court was responsible for determining the appropriate punishment for the defendant. The story above, as well as nearly every case of the mentally ill in the justice system, illustrates the many flaws of the current implementation of the justice system in regards to capital punishment. The mere quantity of variables in the current handling of the mentally ill proves the current system to be inherently flawed and in need of severe modification. If a decision must be made in the contemporary methods, due to the flawed definitions and processes by which one is determined mentally ill, those who fall within the bright line of the “deserving” mentally ill group ought to be subject to capital punishment. It is also necessary to recognize the flaws and problems within the capital punishment justice system and resolve them in order to determine a just and appropriate punishment for the mentally handicapped.

Looking to the current standards followed by the justice system, it would seem inappropriate and unlawful, not to mention immoral, to simply include the mentally handicapped with the perfectly “sane” people who also commit horrendous crimes warranting the death penalty. In fact many opponents of the death penalty for the mentally ill will cite the Supreme Court in “Ford v Wainwright (477 U.S. 399 (1986)) [stating] that executing the insane is unconstitutional … [but] if an inmate's mental competency has been restored, he or she can then be executed” ("Mental Illness”). It seems rather straight forward then that the mentally handicapped ought not be subject to the death penalty, as it is unlawful. This is rather convenient and would normally end the debate immediately, except that it poses two extreme flaws. The first, interestingly enough, is that the Supreme Court “ruled in Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302 (1989), that mental retardation did not automatically preclude a death sentence, though it could be a mitigating factor”, a mere three years after ruling that no mentally ill criminals may face the death penalty (Acad). The contradictions within various court rulings conclude with a confusing conclusion: some mentally ill criminals should face the death penalty and some should not.

Here it is important to define the mentally ill that should face the death penalty, the “deserving” group, and why they are different from other mentally ill criminals. Luckily, the Supreme Court, U.S. Constitution or its amendments, and Congress all fail to give a standard definition for what pertains to mental insanity or retardation. It becomes then the job of the court to find a suitable just definition, such as the one used in the 1986 Supreme Court case, written by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, ability to relate to others and daily functioning” ("Mental Illness”). Here, it is important to recognize that this definition pertains to all mental illnesses, making it necessary to distinguish when one becomes so mentally ill that they should receive immunity from the the death penalty. Such a distinction is found when the parameters in the definition are considered, insofar as that the first three parameters, thinking, feeling, and ability to relate, are all the contents of the fourth, functionality. This makes it slightly simpler to find variations in the degrees of mental health as we can simply look to the levels of functionality of the criminal. The first levels of functionality are actions of basic independent survival. Here we question, is the person able to survive on their own?, can they feed and clean themselves?, can they provide for themselves? Then we ask, is the person contributing to society?, does he or she have a job?, is he or she an active citizen? If answered yes, then the person, even though diagnosed with a mental illness, serves by and large the same purpose as a mentally healthy person, and is therefor held to the same standards of reward and punishment. This person becomes a part of the “deserving group” and should be subject to the repercussions of the death penalty. If the person does not meet the parameters for being functional then he or she does not serve the same purpose as a mentally healthy person. He or she is a part of society only because our morals keep us in a state of aiding them and allowing them to survive. This person falls into the severely mentally ill category, and is then not responsible for his or her own actions, leaving society in the position of blame, as it is society keeping the person alive.

Referring back to the introductory story, Joe was an average person, who made an average living, and cared for a family. He, without a doubt, functioned. Joe then killed his family in a horrifying manner. His sanity came into question after committing this act it becomes hard to believe that a sane person could have done such a thing. This was basically a parallel to the scenario in 2002 when “Teresa Lewis … was charged with 'masterminding' the murder of her husband and stepson”. Lewis hired gunmen to murder her family in order to collect the insurance money. Lewis was to be executed until she was found to have a personality disorder, halting the execution to allow further investigation of Lewis's sanity (Basset). Lewis was considered an able mother and a good employee by her friends and colleagues until they found out that she had a disorder and began to “remember” that she was not as capable as they thought. Lewis's case, as well as many just like it, point to one of the many flaws in the current system, necessitating a reform to the status quo.

Essentially mental competence is not easy to objectively determine. According to Sam Verhovek, in Arizona 1998, Charles Singleton was a mentally insane man on death row. He was taking anti-schizophrenia medication that made him, according to the state, able and competent enough to face the death penalty. Singleton wanted to then stop taking the drugs and return to the insane state, in an effort to avoid execution (Williams). This situation clearly shows that someone who was labeled too insane to directly face execution was able to make the conscious decision to be sane or insane. The court was left with the notion that no one truly insane could make that decision, as it required a higher level of competence, proving that an erroneous judgment was made in the mental health status of a criminal. The understanding afterwards was that the defense has a distinct advantage in “proving” the mental insanity of a criminal, showing a flaw in the system of handling the mentally insane on death row.

The other major flaw of the current capital punishment system pertains to the inability of evidence on either side of the debate to provide a concrete relationship between mental sanity and cause for committing the crime. Because criminals tend to be diagnosed after the crime itself has been committed, by a defense searching for a disorder no less, the results can not be accurately related as the causes of the crimes. Simply conducting an ex post facto study and or a correlation study between the illness and the crime does not show a direct relationship (Myers). For example, a man who is a schizophrenic and commits a murder cannot relate the two directly, as men without schizophrenia also commit murders. This also holds true as it can never be confirmed if the murder was due to an episode of schizophrenia or not. The situation, though, is in fact different when somebody had a prior diagnosis as a severe schizophrenic, pertaining the given example, as then he would fall into the opposite side of the bright line between the “deserving” mentally insane, and the severely mentally insane.

The current methods and standards of solving for justice in terms of capital punishment for the mentally insane has proven fallacious at best. Even though creating a bright line and using it to judge the degrees of sanity in mentally ill criminals can work in the parameters of the current system, it remains necessary to search for an alternative method and approach to the issue. In order to do so, a more concrete version of the bright line system must be implemented. Although, at times it may seem arbitrary, just as the bright line for adulthood, the age of 18, the most utilitarian approach demands that one be created, with the use of intensive psychoanalytic studies and more than just ex post facto correlations. Doing so will ensure that the maximum level of justice be achieved in the issue of the mentally ill death row inmates and that issues, such as those in the Singleton case, are not repeated, and in the end, ensuring justice for all.

Works Cited
Williams, Mary E. Capital Puishment . San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000. 148-1

50. Print.
Bassett, Laura. "Teresa Lewis, Mentally Disabled Woman, To Be Executed In Virginia

This Month." HuffPost Reporting. The Huffington Post, 09 07 2010. Web. 16 Feb

2011. <


"Mental Illness and the Death Penalty." Death Pealty Information Center. Death Penalty

Information Center, 02 22 2011. Web. 22 Feb 2011.

Acad, J Am. "Legal Digest: Mental Illness and the Death Penalty." J Am Acad Psychiatry

Law. American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law., 2006. Web. 20 Feb 2011.

Myers, David G. "Social Psychology ." Social Experiments. 6th Edition. 1. U.S.A.: Worth
Publishers, 2001. Print.

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