|Mentally ill inmates continue to be executed|
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
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."
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.
"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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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