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Highlighting Issues With Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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July 3, 2008

A judge in North Carolina ruled that Guy LeGrande was not competent to be executed. LeGrande has suffered with mental illness for years. His illness was in full view of the jury when he represented himself in his capital trial. During the trial, LeGrande wore a Superman t-shirt and insulted the jury. LeGrande had an execution date scheduled in 2006 but a judge stayed the execution so that he could be examined by psychiatrists.

The judge’s order outlines several of LeGrande’s delusions such as his belief that he will receive a pardon and billions of dollars from the state. Although he has been ruled mentally incompetent to be executed, LeGrande is still under a death sentence.

LeGrande’s case highlights the injustice involved in subjecting defendants who are mentally ill to capital trials. Some mentally ill defendants choose to defend themselves because they mistrust the lawyers assigned to represent them. In LeGrande’s case this led to him making statements to the jury that ensured a death sentence. Mentally ill defendants have also refused to work with psychiatrists because they either do not believe they are ill or they do not trust the people hired to assist them.

The Supreme Court of the United States has not banned the execution of the mentally ill. In Panetti v. Quarterman, the Court held that a mentally ill person cannot be executed if he does not understand the reason for his execution. In the absence of a Supreme Court ruling, states have considered bills to exempt the mentally ill from death sentences. Such bills were brought up in Indiana and Washington but have not yet become law. LeGrande’s case makes it clear that it is an unjust exercise to subject people suffering with mental illness to the death penalty.

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