In 2002, the Court in Atkins v. Virginia barred the execution of people with intellectual disability because they “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct” and because “their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses [can] jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings.”
But because the Court “le[ft] to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction,” some states created narrow definitions that permit the execution of people who meet the clinical criteria for intellectual disability.
Three years after Atkins, the Court applied the same reasoning in Roper v. Simmons to bar the execution of children because “juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders.”
“Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment.”
When Roper was decided, 71 people were on death row for juvenile crimes. Two-thirds were people of color, and more than two-thirds of the victims were white.
Executing people with mental illness presents the same concerns about culpability and reliability that led the Court to bar the death penalty for children and people with intellectual disability. People who have a mental illness or disability that significantly impairs their cognitive or volitional functioning at the time of the offense should be exempted from capital punishment because they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.
People with mental illness are more vulnerable to police pressure, are less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel, and are typically poor witnesses. People who have a mental illness that causes delusions are more likely to insist on representing themselves at trial; they are prone to outbursts in front of their juries and some are so heavily medicated that they appear to have no remorse.
There’s a greater risk that people with mental illness will be executed without review of their convictions or sentences even though the law forbids executing people who are mentally incompetent. Nearly 10% of the people executed since 1976 have been so-called “volunteers” who gave up their appeals, and over 75% of those who waive their appeals suffer from documented mental illness.
Mental health experts estimate at least 20% of people on death row today have a serious mental illness. At least 10% of the people currently sentenced to death nationwide are military veterans, many of whom suffer from documented trauma disorders.
EJI believes that executing people with mental illness is cruel and misguided. Rather than executing people who are themselves victims of trauma, violent injury, or disease as a symbol of society’s moral outrage about violent crime, we should dedicate our resources to providing mental health care and support that would actually reduce violent crime in our communities.