Mental Illness and the Death Penalty
The ACLU Capital Punishment Project is committed to challenging the application of the death penalty to the seriously mentally ill. Application of the death penalty to individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses does not comport with contemporary standards of decency and accordingly, violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Courts have established that inmates who are insane – so out of touch with reality that they do not know right from wrong and cannot understand their punishment or the purpose of it – cannot be executed (Ford v. Wainwright). The Supreme Court has also held that a mentally retarded individual cannot be executed (Atkins v. Virginia).
The state of Georgia has executed Troy Davis, despite serious concerns that he was wrongly convicted in 1989 of killing a police officer. This case makes clear that the death penalty system in the United States is broken beyond repair. It is arbitrary, discriminatory and comes at an enormous cost to taxpayers, and it must be ended.
Mental Illness and the Death Penalty (2009 Feature)
There are significant gaps in the legal protection accorded severely mentally ill defendants charged with or convicted of a capital crime. Most notably, this country still permits the execution of the severely mentally ill. The problem is not a small one. A leading mental health group, Mental Health America, estimates that five to ten percent of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness.
Significant numbers of individuals with serious mental illnesses are housed in North Carolina jails and prisons today. This is so despite the accepted fact that people with severe and debilitating mental illness are considered to be less responsible for their actions than those without such impairments, even when those actions violate the basic tenets of civil society.
The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we hold that the state should not arrogate unto itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, or when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.
Supreme Court cases considering whether death row inmates who have been found incompetent are entitled to a stay of their federal habeas corpus proceedings.