WASHINGTON - January 31 - According to a report released today by international human rights organization Amnesty International (AI), U.S. public officials' systemic neglect of the mental health care system has become a
serious threat to public safety. The AI report found that the safety net
currently in place to prevent individuals with long, documented histories of severe mental illness from committing violent crimes or to protect them from being executed when they do is egregiously inadequate. Instead of receiving the care they desperately need, hundreds of severely mentally ill offenders in the United States are mired within a health care system that is too slow to help and a justice system that is too quick to push them into the death chamber.
"The arguments in favor of the 'deterrent' value of the death penalty ring especially hollow with regard to seriously mentally ill offenders," said Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA. "Instead of waiting until another person dies, governments must fix the mental health system now and strengthen the safety net so that those who need treatment the most receive it before the involvement of the criminal justice system becomes necessary"
The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders examines the rampant, systemic failures confronting the mentally ill and chronicles the cases of 100 severely mentally ill offenders from 23 states who have been executed since 1977 -- 1 in 10 of the total number of executions carried out during that time. In some cases, families begged the state for help with their mentally ill loved ones only to be told that nothing could be done until the relative became "dangerous." Unfortunately, the next time the families heard from the state authorities was when the person for whom they had sought help was being arrested and charged with murder.
"Severely mentally ill offenders are also at special risk of being wrongfully sentenced to death," said Sue Gunawardena Vaughn, Director, Program To Abolish the Death Penalty, AIUSA. "They often lack the capacity to assist their attorney or might even refuse to allow evidence of their mental illness to be presented as a mitigating factor."
U.S. veterans who have made enormous sacrifices for their country are the subject of some of the case histories highlighted in this report. Often, veterans are exposed to extremely violent battlefield experiences that can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may cause hallucinations, flashbacks, and memory loss. The report highlights cases of U.S. veterans who were charged with capital crimes and the fact that they suffered from PTSD was ignored as a mitigating factor during sentencing. They were subsequently executed.
There is an enormous inequity between the amount of money spent to try a capital case and the amount of money spent to treat the mentally ill. For example, Texas spends an average of $2.3 million trying death penalty cases, but the state's per capita spending on mental health ranks 49 out of 50.
Citing pervasive systemic failures in both the health care and the criminal justice systems, the report also highlights the grim situation of the mentally ill currently on death row, which according to the National Association of Mental Health, is 5 to 10 percent of the total death row population in the United States, approximately 3,400.
The report provides an example of an individual who represented himself in court while wearing a cowboy costume, individuals who were clearly not fit to stand trial, a man who was executed after he was forced to take medication that made him coherent, people so severely mentally ill that they did not understand they were about to be executed, and defendants who were forcibly medicated in order to make them "competent" to be executed.
Amnesty International calls on all U.S. authorities to immediately ban the use of the death penalty against mentally ill offenders and to put an end to the broken capital punishment system once and for all. Additionally, public officials at all levels must ensure that pleas for help by those suffering from mental illness do not go unanswered and that adequate medical treatment is given to those who need it the most.
For a copy of the 43-page summary report: "USA: The execution of mentally ill offenders", please see: http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGAMR510022006.
For a copy of the 189-page report: "USA: The execution of mentally ill offenders", please see: http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/ENGAMR510032006.
For more information and updates on AI's campaign against the death penalty, please see: http://web.amnesty.org/pages/deathpenalty-index-eng.