Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Victims' Voices are Essential

This story is featured in the August/September issue of New England Psychologist

Report shows impact of mental illness, death penalty

By Catherine Robertson Souter

When Manny Babbitt's brother, Bill, turned him in to the police in 1980, he knew he was doing the right thing. He believed his brother, who was mentally ill, was involved in a murder.

What he didn't know was that he was handing his brother over to his eventual executioners rather than to a system that would help to cure him, something he has had to live with for nearly 30 years.

"I spoke with the police for hours about Manny and they said that they would help him. I believed them," Bill remembers.

Bill said Manny had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at Bridgewater State Hospital in 1973 and was later determined to be suffering from PTSD as a result of two tours of duty in Vietnam.

He was executed at San Quentin Prison in California in 1999 after a lengthy appeals process. The fact that Manny had lived through some of the worst trauma, both in Vietnam and during his poverty-level childhood in a Cape Verdean neighborhood in Wareham, Mass., was not seen as relevant to the case and not presented to jurors. At the time of his execution, then-California Gov. Gray Davis was quoted as saying, "Countless people have suffered the ravages of war...but such experiences cannot justify or mitigate the savage beating and killing of defenseless, law-abiding citizens."

The difficult part of any conversation about the death penalty, even where mental illness is concerned, is that it is understandable that victims' families demand retribution. A "not guilty due to insanity" label does not seem to serve justice. In popular culture, people often say someone "got off on an insanity plea," as if this plea is a loophole in the system.

In July, Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) released a report sharing the stories of those affected by mental illness and the death penalty. The report, produced by MVHFR and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, features what appear to be disparate voices on the subject: the families of the perpetrators and the families of the victims. Based on interviews with 21 families, the report pleads the case for reformation of the mental health system rather than execution.

"We felt that the victims' voices are essential in this," said MVHFR staff member Susannah Sheffer, who wrote the report. "People believe that victims' families would want the death penalty, saying, 'if it happened in your family you wouldn't be against the death penalty.'"

"But this shows that victims' families do not all feel one way about the death penalty. These people have a powerful voice. You can't argue with the legitimacy of these voices," she adds.

For Julie Nelson of Massachusetts, whose father George, a Lutheran minister, was killed in California in 1979 by the mentally ill son of one of his parishioners, taking that man's life would not have given her closure or justice.

"I think that the state killing people just reinforces death at the societal level," she says. "I am against the death penalty in general but I also think that the death penalty for the mentally ill is just barbaric."

Joe Bruce happens to sit on both sides of this particular fence. He and his wife, Amy, first realized that their son Willy was very ill in 2003, when he was 22-years-old. After a series of hospitalizations, each time being released because he could not be held longer than 30 days or forced to take his medication unless he had been violent, Willy was sent home. In June 2006, after he was returned to his parents, he killed his mother, because he believed her to be an Al Qaeda operative.

"We were unable to get proper treatment for him," Joe says. "If we had been facing the death penalty on top of that, we would be looking at 20 years of appeals only to see him lethally injected when we knew from day one that he was not responsible for what he had done."

Read the rest of the article.

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