Mental Illness on Death Row

Scott Panetti

Quick Facts

  • Mental illness is defined as "Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors, such as infection or head trauma."
  • Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States.
  • It is conservatively estimated that 5-10% of death row inmates suffer from serious mental illness.
  • Research has shown that nearly all Death Row inmates suffer from brain damage due to illness or trauma, while a vast number have also experienced histories of severe physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • Mental illness is not only a problem on Death Row. In 1998, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 283,000 mentally ill individuals were incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons.

Major Reports

Amnesty International. "The execution of mentally ill offenders." 31 Jan. 2006.

In-depth report on United States' executions of the mentally ill. Includes definitions of terminology, explanations of common and relevant mental conditions, primary-source quotations, current national and international statistics, and recommendations by an American Bar Association task force. The report finds and provides startling new information such as that 5-10% of today's Death Row inmates suffer from serious mental illness; it also draws unique connections between certain states' mental health funding and execution rates.

Human Rights Watch. "Ill-Equipped: U.S. Prisons and Offenders with Mental Illness." Sept. 2003.

Detailed report with unique sections dedicated to legal standards and policies, self-injurious behavior, inadequate mental health care in prisons, the effects of solitary segregation on mentally ill prisoners, mental illness in female prisoners, and coping difficulties of mentally ill inmates. Also includes case studies and recommendations to Congress, public officials, community leaders, prison staff, and the general public.

Other Articles

American Civil Liberties Union. "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in the United States." May 2009
Article explains shortcomings of current legislation, provides statistics, and includes numerous case summaries.

Amnesty International. "The Death Penalty Disregards Mental Illness."Brief statement and fact sheet against executions of the mentally ill. Provides various excerpts of international resolutions, showing the United Nations' increasingly grave and specific standpoint on the issue.

Amnesty International. "USA: New report on execution of mentally ill prisoners." 31 Jan. 2006.An Amnesty U.K. article criticizing the United States' exceptionally high rates of mentally ill executions and Death Row inmates as well as the inconsistency of new legislation banning executions of juveniles and the mentally retarded but not of the mentally ill. Includes a partial list of executed prisoners and descriptions of their particular conditions.

Drew, Kevin. "Executed mentally ill inmate heard voices until end." CNN. 6 Jan. 2004.Article in response to the 2004 execution of paranoid schizophrenic Charles Singleton, whose competency was controversially restored by medication, thus rendering him eligible for execution.

Liptak, Adam. "State Can Make Inmate Sane Enough to Execute." 11 Feb. 2003.Article discussing the federal appeals court ruling which allowed Arkansas to medicate Charles Singleton in order to make him eligible for execution. Questions the logic and ethics of whether the state can treat someone for the ultimate purpose of executing him.

Malone, Dan. "Cruel and Inhumane: Executing the Mentally Ill." Amnesty Magazine. Fall 2005.Presents the argument that, in light of recent legislation barring executions of juvenile or mentally retarded inmates, similar policies must be applied to the mentally ill, at least in cases where the actions and thought-processes of a mentally ill defendant resemble those of a juvenile or one who is mentally retarded. Includes responses to arguments which claim that current laws are sufficient for protection of the mentally ill. Concludes that "A society that denies mental health care to those who need it the most and then subsequently executes them is cruel and inhumane at its very core."

Mansnerus, Laura. "Damaged Brains and the Death Penalty." New York Times. 21 July 2001.Notes an inverse relationship between the "grisliness" of a crime and the mental health of its perpetrator. Also cites research showing the frequency of head and brain trauma among Death Row inmates. Explains that many inmates minimize or deny their psychiatric conditions during trial, "figuring that it [is] better to be bad than crazy."

Swedlow, Kathy. "Forced Medication of Legally Incompetent Prisoners: A Primer." Human Rights Magazine. Spring 2003.Discusses the reduced rights of prisoners--even those who are merely awaiting trial--to refuse medical treatment. Also denounces the practice of forcible medication, in which "the state seeks to restore competency through forced medication--solely to then execute the prisoner."

Case Summaries

James Colburn

Amnesty International. "James Colburn: mentally ill man scheduled for execution in Texas." 16 Oct. 2002.

Scott Panetti
Amnesty International. "'Where is the compassion?': The imminent execution of Scott Panetti, mentally ill offender." 2004.

Kelsey Patterson
Amnesty International. "Another Texas injustice: The case of Kelsey Patterson, mentally ill man facing execution." 18 Mar. 2004.

Larry Robison
Amnesty International. "Time for humanitarian intervention: The imminent execution of Larry Robison." 1999.

Charles Singleton
Stone, Alan A., M.D. "Condemned Prisoner Treated and Executed." Psychiatric Times. Mar. 2004.

Other Resources

Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452 (2002)

The Supreme Court case which resulted in the execution of mentally retarded inmates being ruled unconstitutional.

Ford v. Wainwright, No. 477 U.S. 399 (1986)
Supreme Court case which banned executions of the insane. Though the legislation is progressive, it is criticized for being too superficial--for defining insanity too loosely, leaving determination up to each individual state, and in general being insufficiently applicable.

International Justice Project -- Mental Illness
Page dedicated to the problem of mental illness on Death Row. Includes past and current case summaries as well as legislative briefs.

National Alliance on Mental Illness -- By Illness
List of mental illnesses with links to further resources and information regarding each.

News Art
News-friendly clipart on the topic of incarceration of mentally ill individuals.

The American Psychiatric Association. "Mentally Ill Prisoners on Death Row." 2005.
The American Psychiatric Association's position statement against the execution of mentally ill or incompetent defendants.


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