Monday, May 5, 2008

At the Most Painful Intersection

We've met a couple of times in recent weeks with colleagues at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and we are excited to announce now that we will be collaborating with NAMI to produce a report on the intersection between death penalty and mental illness, from a victim perspective. We are in the process of reaching out to relatives of victims killed by persons suffering from severe mental illness, and relatives of persons suffering from severe mental illness who have been executed. If you are, or can put us in touch with, survivors who fit either of these profiles, we welcome the information.

We've been interested in this issue for quite some time, and have been involved in meetings and discussions with Amnesty International, the American Bar Association, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and other groups who have been working in this area. In the spring of 2006 an article in our newsletter on this topic quoted California members Nick and Amanda Wilcox, who have been outspoken and active regarding this issue:

“A severely mentally ill gunman murdered our daughter Laura while she was filling in as receptionist at our local mental health clinic. We have always been opponents of the death penalty; we have not wavered in our conviction because of Laura’s death. ... Laura’s murderer suffered from severe paranoid schizophrenia. We came to recognize soon after the shooting that this man was very ill with little or no insight into his condition or the consequence of his actions. In order to protect society,institutionalization of this man is both necessary and appropriate. To execute him for an act he committed while delusional with a severe disease is, to us, simply wrong."

And in our report about families of the executed, also published in 2006, we quoted Tina Duroy, whose brother James Colburn was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 14 and hospitalized repeatedly throughout his teenage years. At 18, he was no longer covered by his family’s health insurance. Tina recalls:

“My grandparents drained their entire retirement, their savings, but when they ran out of money there was no hospital that would take him without insurance. Texas has no state-funded mental facility. ... I don’t understand how they can execute mentally ill people when they don’t try to treat them first."

We are ready now to delve even further into this difficult and important issue. NAMI Executive Director Michael Fitzpatrick said it well in a public statement a couple of years ago: the death penalty for offenders suffering from mental illness represents “a profound injustice … at the most painful intersection of the mental healthcare and criminal justice systems in America.”

1 comment:

phyllislaw said...

Thought this might be helpful to your work:

There are two great new resources available from the Council of State Governments, and I am very proud to say I worked as an Advisor on the Project that created them. "Responding to People Who Have Been Victimized by Individuals with Mental Illness: and "A Guide to the Role of Crime Victims in Mental Health Courts," for the first time ever, offer excellent guidelines on how we can best advocate for victims whose offenders are mentally ill, and who often find themselves in allies systems that are complex and confusing. You can learn alot about victims' specific rights in such cases, and how we can work collaboratively to provide quality victim services. Both publications can be downloaded at:

Good luck!
Phyllis Turner Lawrence
Alexandria, VA