Recent Rulings in Some States Bar Death Penalty for People with Serious Mental Illness


Recent decisions applying new state laws that bar capital punishment for people with serious mental illness align with the view—shared by mental health and legal experts, global human rights advocates, and the majority of Americans—that people with serious mental illness should be exempt from the death penalty because they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.

People whose ability to recognize the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of their conduct or to conform their conduct to the law is impaired by delusions, hallucinations, or other symptoms of serious mental disorders like schizophrenia (the most common among capital defendants) should be exempt from the death penalty because their moral culpability is reduced, the ABA found in a joint report with mental health experts.

And because people with mental illness are more vulnerable to police pressure and more susceptible to false confessions, are less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel, and are typically poor witnesses, serious mental illness also increases the risk of wrongful convictions.

Despite these culpability and reliability concerns—and even though 60% of Americans, the American Bar Association, American Psychological Association, and American Psychiatric Association, the United Nations, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) oppose executing people with serious mental illness—research suggests the death penalty actually targets this group.

Experts have found that 43% of people executed between 2000 and 2015 had a mental illness diagnosis such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or PTSD. And it is estimated that at least 20% of people currently sentenced to death have a serious mental illness.

Ohio and Kentucky—in 2021 and 2022, respectively—passed laws barring the execution of people with a serious mental illness at the time of their crime, and DPIC reports California lawmakers have also barred the execution of people who have become permanently mentally incompetent while sentenced to death.

Ohio’s law provides for new sentencing hearings for people sentenced to death whose serious mental illness contributed to the offense, and state courts have implemented the new law in several cases.

Last month, an Ohio court barred the execution of Stanley Fitzpatrick after state and defense experts agreed he suffered from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, or delusional disorder before, during, and after his 2002 offense. He was resentenced to life without parole.

In October, Timothy Dunlap and Michael Turner were both resentenced to life in prison under the state’s law. DPIC reports that evidence showed Mr. Dunlap “lived in a ‘fantasy world,’ often claiming that he was an undercover FBI or Secret Service agent,” experienced hallucinations including helicopters, tanks, and gunfire, and told others he was being targeted by assassins. He repeatedly was committed to inpatient mental health programs before the crime and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while in prison. In Mr. Turner’s case, state and defense experts agreed he was seriously mentally ill at the time of the crime and prosecutors did not oppose the petition to bar his execution.

Also last fall, a Cincinnati court ruled that Alto Miles, who had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, could not face the death penalty at trial. He had become agitated during the plea hearing and began yelling at people in the courtroom,  “I’m God.”

Under Kentucky’s law, which authorizes courts to find defendants ineligible for the death penalty prior to sentencing, a Louisville court ruled that Brice Rhodes was ineligible for the death penalty based on “credible, historical, unbiased evidence” demonstrating he is “intellectually disabled and suffers from a serious mental illness.” The court “cannot allow such a person to be subjected to the death penalty, regardless of public clamor,” the judge ruled, adding that “this is not a close case.”

Courts in states without specific laws excluding people with serious mental illness from the death penalty have also acted recently to bar executions, DPIC reports. In May, an Oklahoma court ruled that Wade Lay, who suffers from schizophrenia, delusions, and paranoia, is incompetent to be executed under Supreme Court precedent because he has no rational understanding of the reason for his execution.

In March, a different Oklahoma court found James Ryder incompetent to be executed based on decades of documented schizophrenia. Although their conditions have been worsening for years, DPIC reports the attorney general announced the state will seek to restore both men’s competence in order to execute them—a practice that has been condemned as unethical.