This column by Dr. Maria Felix-Ortiz appeared in the 9/10/08 issue of the San Antonio Express-News:
This new millennium has seen substantial review of capital punishment.
In 2002, in Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote that the intellectually disabled can be competent, “but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”
This overturned a 13-year-old decision that had allowed execution of the mentally [disabled].
In 2005, the court opined that a juvenile's “immature and irresponsible behavior,” vulnerability to and lack of control over his environment and the fact that he was still developing his identity indicated diminished culpability. In Roper vs. Simmons, the court ruled that a juvenile's diminished culpability meant that execution couldn't serve as retribution or as deterrence of capital crimes.
Could similar reasoning apply to capital punishment of mentally ill offenders?
Mental illness and capital punishment are the focus of a national meeting co-sponsored by National Alliance for Mental Illness and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights at the University of the Incarnate Word on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. (in BSH 129). Speakers, who will share their perspectives as family members of murder victims and the executed murderers, include:
Bill Babbitt: His brother was executed in California for assaulting and killing a 78-year-old grandmother. Manny was a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Babbitt remarks (see www.mvfhr.org), “The police promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my brother in and that led to his death.”
Lois Robison: Her son became ill with paranoid schizophrenia. Larry was discharged after 30 days, as soon as he turned 21, because he wasn't covered by his parents' insurance. Robison took him to the county hospital, which discharged him and said “not to take him home.” He couldn't be hospitalized unless he was violent. Larry's first episode of violence was to kill five people. Robison remarks, “They told us if he ever got violent they would give him treatment and instead they gave him the death penalty.”
Amanda Wilcox: Her daughter, Laura, a receptionist, was killed by a man who had paranoid schizophrenia.
This event launches a national effort to collect interviews and generate a report to the next NAMI national conference. NAMI and MVFHR hope to educate us about this complex issue.