Two years ago, a federal court halted at the last minute the execution of a man diagnosed with schizophrenia. Advocates are citing his case in favor of a death penalty ban for the severely mentally ill.
Scott Pinetti, the man at the center of the Texas case, killed his in-laws in 1992 and was sentenced to death in 1995.
Before his crime, he had been hospitalized 14 times in 11 years for symptoms of mental illness. Pinetti was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and suffered from hallucinations. At his trial, he dressed in a purple cowboy outfit and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ. Yet he testified in court against the wishes of his attorney, and the jury sentenced him to death.
A federal appeals court granted a temporary halt to his scheduled execution in 2014, just hours before it was to take place. Texas’ Catholic bishops approved of the move and restated their opposition to his execution.
“The Texas Bishops have long taught about the immorality of the death penalty and were particularly vocal seeking mercy for Panetti, who has been diagnosed by several doctors as suffering from severe mental illness,” they stated, adding that “the death penalty in his case would violate the constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Yet despite prohibitions on the execution of juveniles and persons with Intellectual Disability (formerly referred to as mental retardation), decided by the Supreme Court in 2002 and 2005 respectively, many states that use the death penalty have no specific prohibition on the its use on persons who had severe mental illness at the time of their crime.
Thus, controversial executions of people with evidence of mental illness continue. For instance, in 2015 Georgia executed Andrew Brannan, a Vietnam War veteran whose lawyers said was ruled 100 percent disabled with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder before he shot and killed a police officer.
A coalition of groups, including the Catholic Mobilizing Network, the American Bar Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and other religious and mental health groups have been pushing for this legal protection.
Several states, including Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, are “expected to consider severe mental illness exemptions” to their death penalty law next year, said Hilarie Bass, president-elect of the American Bar Association. These legislative proposals are bipartisan, she added, speaking at a keynote luncheon on severe mental illness and the death penalty at Georgetown University.
Getting into the details
What might this prohibition look like and why is it so important to this coalition?
In its new report, the American Bar Association quoted from the American Psychological Association’s definition to clarify what mentally ill person might be exempt from the death penalty.
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Someone with “severe mental illness” would have a specific diagnosis like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, would have had it for at least a year, and would have “comparatively severe impairment in major areas of functioning.”
Before a capital murder trial, the judge would need testimony “from a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist who would reevaluate the defendant and his or her health history,” Bass explained. Witnesses familiar with the defendant could give testimony for or against their claim of severe mental illness.
It would have to be clear that the judgment of the defendant would have been impaired at the time of their crime, and not just in the present moment.
And these exemptions “would not create a total defense for murder, or mean that the defendant would not be punished if found guilty,” Bass insisted, as someone committing a capital crime could still receive a life sentence without parole.
Severe mental illness like schizophrenia can clearly impair someone’s judgment to the extent that their guilt for a capital crime is reduced as it is for juvenile offenders and the Intellectually Disabled, Bass argued.
In those cases, she said, “our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the worst of the worst,” and “less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their defense, and more likely to be wrongfully convicted.”