Can a Mentally Ill Person be Charged with the Death Penalty?

13March
2019

The question of whether a mentally ill person can be charged with the death penalty has been debated at length by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It’s a difficult question because there is a lack of consensus about the definition of mental illness. The issue is also becoming moot in Arizona where a prisoner has not been executed for over four years, even though more than 100 people languish on Death Row.

The Death Penalty Information Center points out mental illness can be described in a variety of ways. The website notes the definition in the American Heritage Dictionary of mental illness as a range of 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.”

Can mentally ill people receive the death penalty

The death penalty and mental illness

The U.S. Supreme Court has considered the case of mentally ill defendants using the narrower definition of “intellectual disability” which impacts intellectual functioning such as problem-solving, learning, and judgment as well as adaptive functioning impacting independent living, and norms like communication. The condition was previously referred to as “mental retardation.”

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded the execution of people with mental retardation is “cruel and unusual punishments” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The case established protection for people with intellectual disabilities. The justices cited disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and impulse control.

The court said people with intellectual disabilities “do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.” The justices said people with an intellectual disability were not able to comprehend the death penalty.

The Atkins decision offered less protection than mental health advocates hoped. Prosecutors argued defendants were not intellectually disabled and their real issue was mental illness manifesting as a personality disorder.

States continued to execute people with mental illnesses. The Death Penalty Information Center noted Arizona executed Robert Moorman in 2012. His attorneys argued he was mentally disabled and was sexually abused into his adulthood. Prosecutors argued Moorman’s mental capacity when he committed murder was slightly above the legal threshold for mental impairment. Moorman killed and dismembered his adoptive mother.

Notwithstanding the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, mentally ill people are sentenced to death across the United States.

However, the use of the death penalty has stalled in Arizona, raising questions whether it will be used again.

According to a recent report on ABC15, the cost of executions and a shortage of drugs means it’s questionable whether the death penalty will be resumed in the state.

The news report noted a discussion on the death penalty last year. Assistant Federal Public Defender Dale Baich said the state of the death penalty in Arizona is “broken.”

The discussion was raised in an Arizona courtroom during the trial of a defendant accused of the sexual assault and killing of 8-year-old Isabella Grogan-Canella.

Although prosecutors initially wanted the death penalty during the trial of Justin James Rector, the request was withdrawn. They concluded there was no reasonable likelihood of Rector being executed give the “current state of affairs surrounding persons sentenced to death.” Rector received two mental health evaluations.

Like many other states, Arizona has lacked the drugs to perform execution by lethal injection.

The last time a death row prisoner was executed was in 2014 when Joseph Wood was put to death at the Florence State Prison.

Wood was injected with lethal injection drugs but took almost two hours to die. The execution shocked the nation.

By the time Wood finally succumbed after nearly two hours, he had been injected with 750mg each of hydromorphone and midazolam –15 times the amounts stipulated in Arizona’s execution protocol.

Baich said the lack of drugs was one reason why no executions have been carried out for four years. Another is the soaring cost of the death penalty.

In Arizona, county prosecutors hold the power over whether to seek the death penalty. Many are no longer using it.

Maricopa County Prosecutor Bill Montgomery said in 2018 the county had its lowest level of pending capital cases in two decades. Death penalty cases are down in also down in Pima County.

The ABC research found prosecutors are withdrawing notices to seek capital punishment because of the problems in the system as in the Rector case.

The pattern in Arizona reflects the rest of the nation. Death sentences peaked in the 1990s and have fallen steadily ever since. Some states like Maryland abolished capital punishment entirely. Other use it less frequently.  The Death Penalty Information Center noted historic lows in the use of the death penalty in many states in 2018.

At the Garcia Law Firm, we represent mentally ill defendants who have been charged with serious crimes like murders as well as lesser offenses. Please call us today if you or a family member has been charged with a crime at (602) 340-1999.

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