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New Report Examines the Effect of Severe Mental Illness and Capital Punishment on Families

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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July 30, 2009

Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness is a report written by a collaboration of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The report was developed from the “Prevention, Not Execution” project. The project and report begin with the premise that treatment, not execution, is the best course of action for people with severe mental illnesses who have committed murder (PDF).

While the report recognizes that not all people who suffer with severe mental illnesses are violent and will commit murder, it does show the harm that can happen when a person is not treated for such illnesses. The report illustrates that our criminal justice system has not developed a system which balances rehabilitation through treatment for offenders and the need to punish the person for the wrong committed and the pain caused to victims’ families.

Verdicts such as “not guilty by reason of insanity” can offend family members because it appears to absolve the person of guilt, and the family has clearly suffered an unimaginable loss. Victims’ family members interviewed for the report varied in their opinions about punishment. None wanted death for the person who killed their loved ones, but they differed on what punishment would be fitting. Some families prefer a verdict of “guilty but mentally ill” because it assigns responsibility for the action, but understands treatment for the mental illness is necessary.

The report details several examples in which people who were clearly ill murdered someone and were found incompetent. It also tells the stories of those who were still tried, convicted and eventually executed, despite their mental illness.

For example, Larry Robison was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. His parents checked him into a few facilities. Each time he was about to be released, his parents asked the physicians to retain him. One psychiatrist stated that Robison needed long-term care, but when the hospital learned that Robison was not covered by insurance, his parents said the hospital “could not wait to get him out of there.” His parents were told he could not get help because he was not violent, but if he became violent, he would be placed in a mental hospital.

Robison began to self-medicate and was admitted to a rehabilitation center for his drug use, but was not treated for schizophrenia. Robison was arrested for the murder of five people just four years after his first diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. His first violent act was murder. Robison was executed, without ever receiving the treatment he needed.

Double Tragedies is compelling because it examines the aftermath of these crimes on the families of the victims and the families of the offender. The best way to understand this broken system is to read the stories from family members of the victims and family members of the offender. Double Tragedies does an excellent job of telling those stories.

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