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Killing the Mentally Ill

Denny LeBoeuf,
Director, John Adams Project
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June 8, 2012

Reading today’s editorial in the New York Times led me to ask: when will our country finally stop the execution of the severely mentally ill?

The editorial rightly praises Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who on Tuesday provided at least a temporary stay of execution for death-sentenced prisoner Abdul Awkal, who was scheduled to be killed on Wednesday.

The evidence that Mr. Awkal’s longstanding mental illness had progressed so far that he was not competent to be executed had convinced a lower court judge on Monday to grant a hearing about his sanity. But shamefully, before Gov. Kasich stepped in, the Ohio Supreme Court refused to grant Awkal a stay – meaning the hearing would have been conducted after Mr. Awkal was executed.

Although the state had managed to find a mental health expert who years ago said in trial that Mr. Awkal was just fine, few now seriously dispute his mental illness. Awkal’s childhood was marred by the awful conflict of Lebanon’s civil war. He was once carried away from a job site in Detroit in a straitjacket. He had hallucinations, severe depression, and believes that he has helped the U.S. fight the war in Afghanistan from his cell on Death Row. He thinks the reason he may be executed is that the CIA is mad at him. Dr. Philip Resnick, who once testified that Awkal’s delusions did not interfere with his ability to understand the reason he was being executed, now says he is uncertain.

To be clear: executing the mentally ill violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Yet Ohio came within hours of executing a mentally ill man this week. And Ohio certainly is not alone in executing the sick. Mississippi put Edwin Hart Turner to death in February of this year despite abundant evidence of his suicidal insanity. Even with the stay, there will be a hearing focused on just how sick Mr. Awkal is, as only the extremely mentally ill can hope to be re-sentenced to life in prison on that account.

The Times has it right: “the death penalty system fails to take adequate account of severe mental illness.” It is a human rights violation to punish, let alone execute, someone for behavior that is caused by an illness. That’s why many of the leading human rights organizations, even those that do not take a position on the death penalty, decry its use on the mentally ill. It makes as much sense to penalize an act that is the result of a delusional disorder as it does to scold a tubercular for coughing. Human societies used to punish people with leprosy and tuberculosis, but we look back on that now as barbaric.

One day, perhaps much sooner than we think, our society will feel the same way about the execution of the mentally ill.

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