Death Row Inmates: A Product of Free Will or Mental Illness?

The Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear another case that seeks to protect mentally ill inmates from execution.

Photo by Thomas Hawk (Flickr)

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court of the United States banned the use of the death penalty as punishment for mentally disabled defendants.  More than a decade later the Court has agreed to hear Brumfield v. Cain, a case concerning a mentally ill man named Kevan Brumfield.  Brumfield was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

After the Atkins decision came down, Brumfield asked to have his death sentence overturned on the basis of his mental disability.   A state court judge reasoned that the evidence was sufficient to overcome this issue and denied Brumfield’s request to reexamine his case.  Brumfield had more success in federal court, where a judge granted his request for an Atkins hearing and ruled that he was ineligible for execution on account of his mental disability.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for the United States in New Orleans reversed the trial court, finding that Brumfield’s mental capacity had already been determined in state court before Atkins was decided.

This result puts Brumfield in a very unique situation.  As his lawyers argued in their petition seeking Supreme Court review, Brumfield faces execution even though the court that conducted an Atkins hearing concluded that he was in fact mentally retarded.  The issues that the Court must decide are first, whether the federal judge was allowed to review the state judge’s determination of Brumfield’s capacity, and second, whether the state judge should have provided funds to Brumfield to allow him to try to prove his capacity, or lack thereof.

Legal scholars say new findings on brain function and dysfunction are beginning to get traction where they matter most, in death row cases.

A 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.” This implies that there are factors that cause people to act in ways that they are, at times, unable to control.

Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a professor of psychiatry at Yale New York University, conducts studies that focus on murderers by looking at their medical histories and their brains.  Lewis has said that almost all of the murderers she has studied show evidence of brain damage.  She has had some success in changing the way people think about violence.  Legal scholars say new findings on brain function and dysfunction are beginning to get traction where they matter most, in death row cases.

Lewis published a study in which she and a colleague conducted research on fifteen death row inmates.  The study found that all of the fifteen inmates observed had suffered severe head injuries, namely to the frontal lobe, in their childhood, and about half of them had been injured by assaults as well.  Damage was primarily to the frontal lobe, which controls aggression and impulsivity.  Six of the participants in the study were “chronically psychotic.”

In another study, Lewis studied fourteen juveniles who were sentenced to death.  The research showed that all of them had suffered head trauma, and twelve of the fourteen had also been subject to severe physical or sexual abuse.  Those who suffered sexual abuse had been sodomized by relatives.

Lewis, who has been cited by the Supreme Court at least three times, concludes that most murders are shaped by the combination of damage to their brains and by repeated, violent child abuse.  Lewis does not suggest that brain damage or abuse causes a person to become a murderer.  There are many more factors that play into what leads a person to become like this.  However, she does say that “while most damaged people do not turn into killers, almost every killer is a damaged person.”

Even though those who are on death row are not limited to murderers, this shows that some of the most violent criminals have experienced traumatic instances in their lives that could have affected their capacities and mental states.  This abnormal mental state may have led to their later crimes.

Mental Health America conservatively estimates that five to ten percent of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness.  Not only is mental illness a problem on death row, but a 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimated that there were 705,600 mentally ill adults in state prisons, 479,900 in local jails, and 78,800 in federal prisons.

There are several legal issues that contribute to the incarceration of the mentally ill.

Even though it is unconstitutional to execute the insane, there are insufficient protections in the justice system afforded to those who suffer from mental illness.  There are several legal issues that contribute to the incarceration of the mentally ill.   For example, there are questions involving police interrogation, competency to stand trial, insanity, and the ability to form criminal intent, among others.

It all begins with police interrogation.  Those suffering from a mental illness can be much more likely to give false confessions because they are more impulsive, have deficits in cognitive processing, are suggestible, have delusions, and often have extreme compliance.  They may have difficulty understanding Miranda warnings, thus waiving rights they are unable to fully comprehend and appreciate.

Next, there are issues with their competency to stand trial.  In order to stand trial, an individual must be “competent.” For the most part, the competency test applied by the courts is a low bar.  Courts or juries often find that significantly mentally ill defendants meet the basic standards for the test of competency.

Defendants who are found incompetent are often transferred to a mental hospital where doctors can, in many cases, forcibly medicate the defendant for the purpose of making him or her competent to stand trial.  However, drugs merely alleviate the symptoms or mask them.  This also leaves doctors in a strange position: treating the prisoners can provide temporary relief, possibly leading to the prisoners’ executions, but leaving them untreated will subject them to the full symptoms of their mental illnesses, like hallucinations and delusions.

Dr. Howard Zonana, who teaches psychiatry and law at Yale, has said “[y]ou can’t treat someone for the purpose of executing them.”  The question is to what extent can the government, who is supposed to heal and protect these people, take invasive, involuntary action in treating prisoners which has the result of causing execution.  In 1986 the Supreme Court even held that the execution of the insane was barred by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

On Friday December 5, 2014, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to Brumfield.  The Court will review the procedure used to decide whether an inmate on death row is ineligible for execution on account of his or her mental disability.  It is not clear whether the justices will sway one way or another, but based on how ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court may very well rule in Brumfield’s favor.

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About Kruti Patel, Senior Staff Writer (14 Articles)
Kruti Patel is a 2016 graduate, and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is a Greensboro, North Carolina native. In 2013, Kruti graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Spanish for the Professions. During the summer of 2014, Kruti worked as a research assistant for Professor Patrick Hetrick researching joint tenancy laws, and at the NC Department of Health and Human Services in the Communications Department. Kruti is worked as Prof. Hetrick’s research assistant and at the NC Hospital Association during her second year of law school.
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