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Mentally ill inmates continue to be executed

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William Redick
Oct. 19, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Tom McAnally*

Mentally ill inmates continue to be executed despite a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring it unconstitutional to execute defendants with "mental retardation."

Critics of the death penalty contend the practice continues because courts, particularly state courts, tend to interpret the U.S. Supreme Court prohibition in a very restrictive manner.

William Redick, a Nashville attorney who directs the Tennessee Justice Project, explains: "Many of the courts have found inmates not to be retarded when they could have reached the opposite conclusion. Also, mental retardation refers to brain damage that is genetic or induced by physical trauma and does not include various manifestations of mental illness or psychological problems. In other words, an inmate can be seriously mentally ill and not retarded."

Tennessee case

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Sedley Alley
One such case is playing out in Tennessee, where convicted murderer Daryl Keith Holton, 44, received a stay of execution Sept. 18, hours before his scheduled execution at 1 a.m., Sept. 19.

Robert Coe and Sedley Alley, the only two inmates Tennessee has executed in the past 46 years, were both seriously mentally ill, according to Redick. Two others whose execution dates are approaching are also both seriously mentally ill, he said.

Holton confessed to the assault-rifle slaying of his three young sons and their half-sister. Earlier this year he chose to stop appealing his death sentence and asked to be put to death in the electric chair, rather than by the state's preferred method of lethal injection. Tennessee allows death-row inmates to choose between the two execution methods if their crimes were committed before 1999.

In granting the stay, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it wanted to review the lower court's ruling that Holton's lawyers failed to prove he is not competent to abandon federal appeal of his sentence. The court also ruled the stay was necessary in light of a new filing by Holton to the U.S. Supreme Court. In that petition, Holton says he was "denied a fair trial due to ineffective assistance of trial counsel."

Holton has said he was severely depressed when he committed the murders. His lawyers maintain Holton has a long history of mental illness and may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service in the 1991 Gulf War.

Redick said it is impossible to predict when a decision will be made on the Holton appeal. "It could be as short as three or four months or as long as one or two years." Under Tennessee state regulations, a new execution date must be set by the state Supreme Court.

Treat--don't execute

"The fact that a man with such clear mental illness came within 12 hours of execution is a clear indictment of our capital punishment system," says the Web site of the Tennessee Coalition to Abolish State Killing. "As a state, we should be offering treatment to people with mental illness, not executing them."

The coalition says cases like this explain why the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers have called for a moratorium on executions. "Our system is simply incapable of properly understanding or dealing with defendants with serious mental illnesses."

The coalition reports that Holton has had a long history of mental illness: "When serving in the military, he spent a month in a psychiatric facility. He has a history of suicide attempts. He has been diagnosed with severe depression with psychosis. The psychosis makes his perception of reality extremely tenuous, and his mental illness drove him to the tragic crime that brought him to death row."

National scandal

The prevalence of the mentally ill in prison, and particularly on death row, is a state and national scandal, declares Redick. "The diagnostic and treatment features of the mental health community do not integrate well into the punitive features of the criminal justice model."

Though the mental impairment of offenders is a common problem, Redick says the inability of the criminal justice system to deal effectively with it has caused the erosion of the courts' willingness to even acknowledge mental health issues in individual criminal cases.

"Insanity defenses virtually never carry the day," he says. "Incompetent defendants are rarely found incompetent; inmates do not receive meaningful mental health treatment; jurors do not consider mental impairment to mitigate the imposition of the death sentence."

*McAnally, retired director of United Methodist News Service, lives in Nashville.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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