Monday, December 31, 2007

Austin Police Department Assist Those with Mental Illness

From the Austin American-Statesman, December 29, 2007:

Protecting and serving the mentally ill: Austin police crisis officers strain to fill gaps in mental health care in the face of budget cuts, growing caseload

Joshunda Sanders

Willie, 71, was muttering to himself underneath a dying palm tree in his Clarksville front yard when Austin police officers Donnie Williamson and Kim Devitt showed up. He glanced at the familiar white car, then scurried into his house, screaming, "What'd I do now?"

Williamson approached Willie's door. "We're just here to check on you," he said calmly. "Go home now!" the older man yelled, slamming his door shut.

Like hundreds of other mentally ill people in Austin, Willie's not an immediate danger to anyone. (His last name has been withheld because he was not charged with any wrongdoing.) Still, he demands a lot of attention and resources, mainly those of the Austin Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. Since 1998, police officers have visited him more than 20 times, trying to get him help or medication, to no avail. Williamson, a 21-year-veteran of the department who has been with the crisis team for five years, said, "You have to switch hats between police work and social work."

The team of six officers, created in 1999, follows up on attempted suicide calls, or visits people who either don't have or won't take medication. Patients with immediate needs are taken to psychiatric emergency services run by Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center. If officers take someone to be treated, they follow up with home visits and with center workers to make sure people are getting the help they need.

In the past, officers could take people like Willie to the state hospital. Now, they can only drop them at Brackenridge and Seton hospital emergency rooms. Willie is one of an estimated 900 people expected to need treatment in the next year who might not get it, according to the county. The Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center cut the number of Austin State Hospital beds available to mentally ill people in the city and county from 110 to about 63 this year because of inadequate state funding.

When Willie started tossing things around and screaming uncontrollably inside his house, Williamson said to Devitt, "We better go."

To no one in particular, he said, "I'd love to put him in the hospital to get him the medication he needs, but there's nothing illegal about being crazy in your own house."

Austin police officers work alongside nine Travis County sheriff's deputies on the Austin State Hospital campus.

About 200 officers on the force are trained to deal with the mentally ill as part of their normal duties, but the crisis team goes beyond that, said police Sgt. Michael Turner, who oversees the unit. Every year, Turner said, his unit faces caseload increases, possibly fueled by out-of-county clients. In 2006, officers wrote 5,685 reports; as of this November, the unit had 6,031 reports, about 20 per officer per week. "It's hard and can be frustrating work," Williamson said. "But I try to look at it as if this person was my kid — how would I want someone to deal with him?"

Devitt tried a similar approach with 51-year-old Marissa, communicating through a rickety apartment windowpane. The electricity had been shut off at her tiny downtown apartment, so when temperatures dropped, she had no heat. Her solution: burning charcoal in bowls inside her house.

"We don't want you burning this place up," Devitt warned. "You just call us if your lights go out again." Devitt and Williamson backed away from the apartment, cautiously eyeing the old wood before they got back into their police car and drove to their next visit.;445-3630

MORE ON THIS STORY: On the beat with the Crisis Intervention Unit

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mental Health Court in El Paso

From the El Paso Times, December 10, 2007:

"A new mental health court intervention and treatment program was created today by a unanimous vote by Commissioners Court.

The new court will address mental health issues among adult criminal offenders, including counseling services, treatment, supervision and mental health assessments. The new court will seek grant funds to help fund its operation."

Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties all have some sort of mental health diversion courts.

Read more about mental health courts at

Monday, December 10, 2007

An Innovative Approach to Prevention

Residents of Frederick County, Maryland soon will have access to first aid for mental health concerns, according to an interesting article that appeared December 8 in the Frederick News Post.

Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is piloting the program, which offers a 12-hour training course to community volunteers. Members of the community will learn how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness, which should enable them to approach mentally ill people and refer them to the appropriate resources and services.

The "first aid program" has been offered in Australia and Scotland; leaders in Maryland decided to follow suit while developing strategies in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting in April. The state is using a Mental Health Transformation State Incentive Grant to pilot changes, including the first aid initiative.

The program aims to reduce stigma and will serve an educational purpose. A workgroup recommended the program so people who notice someone with problems will be able to help them before it is too late.

More information is available at

A Dangerous Wait for Treatment

Here are some excerpts from an article that appeared on December 9, 2007 in the Austin-American Statesman, "After policy change, ERs seeing more mentally ill patients":

"It's been one month since Austin's mental health authority slashed the number of patients it sends to the Austin State Hospital.

Since then, nearly 30 people with mental health crises have been routed to local emergency rooms, which don't have adequate expertise or facilities to deal with psychiatric patients. The number of Travis County prisoners with mental illness waiting to be transferred to a state hospital has jumped from 30 to 43. And local health officials don't know when relief will come."

"The mental health center runs the county's public mental health system. The quasi-nonprofit, which operates on government and private dollars, provides psychiatric care for low-income, uninsured and indigent people. It also sends people to state-run psychiatric hospitals.

How many people can go to those hospitals, and how long they can stay, is largely ruled by money.

The Texas Department of State Health Services gives the center $8.4 million a year to spend on psychiatric hospitalizations. That generally translates to 63 people per day.

But for years, because Austin has a shortage of psychiatric hospital beds, the center routinely housed up to 110 patients in Austin State Hospital at any given time. Now, the state is telling the center to stop exceeding its quota or pay the state millions of dollars for the care of those extra patients.

That makes emergency rooms the new safety net for many mentally ill people."

"Meanwhile, a number of people in the Travis County Correction Complex deemed incompetent to stand trial are now waiting months to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. Some have been waiting to be moved since September, said Sgt. Kitty Hicks of the Travis County sheriff's office."

Read the full article.

Court to Rule on Acting As Own Lawyer

From the Austin-American Statesman, December 7, 2007:

"The Supreme Court said Friday it will review whether a defendant who is judged competent to stand trial has the right to be his own lawyer, even if he has a history of serious mental illness.
Ahmad Edwards was convicted of attempted murder and other charges in 2005 following a shooting at an Indianapolis department store in 1999.

He was initially found to be schizophrenic and suffering from delusions and spent most of the five years following the shooting in state psychiatric facilities. But by 2005, he was judged competent to stand trial.

Edwards asked to represent himself, but a judge denied the request because he was concerned that Edwards' trial would not be fair. Edwards, represented by a lawyer, was convicted anyway and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

He appealed and Indiana courts agreed that his right to represent himself had been violated, citing a U.S. high court decision from 1993. The courts overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Boehm said the judge's determination that Edwards' schizophrenia made him incapable of defending himself seemed "at a minimum, reasonable." But, Boehm said, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that "competency to represent oneself at trial is measured by competency to stand trial."

Criminal defendants may be ruled competent to stand trial if they understand the proceedings and are capable of assisting their lawyer. The justices said they will consider in the Edwards case whether states may impose a higher standard for measuring a defendant's competency to be his own lawyer than when determining he is competent to stand trial. Arguments probably will take place in March.

The court recently saw an aspect of this dilemma in the case of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill killer from Texas who was nonetheless judged competent to stand trial and allowed to represent himself.
Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death after personally arguing that only an insane person could prove the insanity defense. He dressed in cowboy clothing and submitted an initial witness list that included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. The court blocked his execution in June, in a ruling that did not address his role in his own defense.

The new case is Indiana v. Edwards, 07-208."

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Challenges of Involuntary Commitment

The Washington Post (November 28, 2007) features an informative article about the challenges related to involuntary commitment procedures for people with mental illness. Most states require those exhibiting symptoms of mental illness to pose an "imminent threat" to themselves or others before they are committed to a mental health facility against their will.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

"The imminent danger standard arose in several states in response to the previous governmental practice of building large asylums and then dumping the mentally ill there without due process or adequate resources. As squalid conditions and sordid practices were uncovered in the 1950s, the pendulum swung toward patients' rights: Hundreds of thousands were "deinstitutionalized," or released from the asylums, and new legal standards -- "imminent danger" in many states -- were installed.

In 1955, 558,239 patients were in public psychiatric hospitals. By the mid-1990s, the number had dropped to fewer than 72,000. By 2002, the total had fallen below 50,000.

But the same states that implemented the imminent danger standards rejected them over the past decade, most often because of incidents that involved the mentally ill. "

Read the full article.

Sugar Land man found not guilty of by reason of insanity

According to the Houston Chronicle (November 29, 2007), Tristan Williams, a 20-year-old man accused of fatally stabbing his mother, was found not guilty by reason of insanity by a Fort Bend County court. Williams, who was 17 at the time of the slaying, will be sent to a maximum security mental health facility for treatment, according to court documents. He was arrested May 21, 2004, for stabbing his mother Alice Williams 39, at a Sugar Land home where she worked as a housekeeper.

"Assistant district attorney John Hawkins said evidence, including testimony from mental and medical experts, showed Williams had a history of mental disorders. The defendant's aunt told the court the family did not want him sent to prison but felt he should be in mental health facility.

Hawkins said the state presented no evidence contesting the defense position that Williams was not guilty due to insanity.

The trial was held in the court of state District Judge James Shoemake. and the not guilty verdict was reached Monday."

Read the full article.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

League of Women Voters of Texas Oppose Death Penalty for the Mentally Ill

The League of Women Voters of Texas' position on the death penalty includes a call to prohibit the execution of the mentally ill. The League's Fall 2007 newsletter, "Texas Voter," features a comprehensive article about mental illness and the death penalty and encourages League members to obtain a copy of a new Mental Illness and the Death Penalty Organizing Packet and postcards.

You can read the article here:

Many thanks to Gloria Suarez-Sasser, the Capital Punishment Program Chair, for her support of this public education campaign.

House Committee Passes MIOTCRA

Here's an update from the Consensus Project on the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act (MIOTCRA):

"On November 7, 2007, just a week after the introduction of the bill, members of the full House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 3992, the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act. The bill will now be sent to the House floor for consideration, which sponsors say could take place later this month. The Senate sponsors intend to move the companion bill, S. 2304, before Congress breaks for recess.

During the mark-up of the bill, lead sponsors Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) spoke about the need for continued collaboration between criminal justice and mental health agencies. The bill will make a significant commitment to addressing the needs of both the criminal justice system and the mentally ill offender population. It offers grants to communities to develop diversion programs, mental health treatments in jails and prisons, and transition and after-care services to facilitate reentry into the community.

"I am pleased to be the lead cosponsor of a bi-cameral, bi-partisan legislation," Representative Scott said. "The MIOTCRA will not only provide for appropriate responses to mentally ill offenders, but save localities money in avoided jail and prison costs.

"With bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, the legislation will raise the authorization level of MIOTCRA from $50 million per year to $75 million per year and will extend the authorization through 2013. The bill will also reauthorize the Mental Health Courts grant program, (Public Law 106-515) and require a study to be completed on the prevalence of mental illness in prisons and jails."

Monday, November 12, 2007

"60 Minutes" Segment on Mentally Ill Inmate in Tennessee

Last night, the CBS News program "60 Minutes" featured an interview with Gregory Thompson, a severely mentally ill man who has been on death row in Tennessee for more than 20 years. His lawyers did not raise evidence of his mental illness during his trial. Thompson had an execution date in 2006, but a federal appeals court ruled that a lower court should examine evidence that Thompson was mentally ill at the time of the crime. Later, the Supreme Court narrowly overruled the decision, saying it was too late to raise that issue.

According to CBS, "Thompson's lawyers are going back to federal court this month and hope to get a ruling that Thompson -- despite his medication -- is mentally incompetent and should not be executed. The Tennessee attorney general, who declined 60 Minutes' request for an interview, is expected to argue that Thompson understands why he is being punished, is not insane and,therefore, should be executed."

Here's more from CBS News:

"Thompson voluntarily takes a cocktail of 10 pills daily, plus two injections a month, and says he would "go lulu" without them. Episodes off the medications include attempting to kill guards he says appeared to be insects and aliens. But even on the medicine, he is delusional, says one of his lawyers, Dana Chavis. '[Medicine] doesn't take away his mental illness. He's always insane... but it hides that insanity,' says Chavis.

[Reporter Laura] Logan spoke with him in prison while he was on his medication, asking him if he's aware the medication increases his chances of being executed. "I made a choice years ago that if I were to get to that point, I'd rather be normal than insane," he says, "because it hurts. I'm tired of being mentally ill if they want to kill me at the end, then they kill me at the end." Asked what would happen if he is executed, Thompson replies, "Well, I know that the dead can speak."
When asked if he would die, Thompson says, "I think it would be a horrible ending, because if the dead can speak ... you got thoughts going on in the grave. I don't know about that," he tells Logan.

Thompson also claims he received a check for $444,000 for writing songs for country western stars and gave it to his victim's family."

Video footage is available at:

Friday, November 2, 2007

Congress Introduces the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act

From the Consensus Project Newsletter, November 2007:

"This week U.S. Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Pete Domenici (R-NM), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Arlen Specter (R-PA), and U.S. Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Randy Forbes (R-VA) introduced the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Reauthorization and Improvement Act.

This legislation, which has received bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, will reauthorize the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act or MIOTCRA (Public Law 108-414). Enacted in 2004, MIOTCRA created the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Grant Program (JMHCP) designed to help states and counties design and implement collaborative efforts between criminal justice and mental health systems. Through appropriated funds, the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) within the Department of Justice has awarded 53 communities in 35 states with additional resources to plan and implement collaborative efforts between criminal justice and mental health systems."

Here are some provisions of the new bill:
  • Raises the authorization level of MIOTCRA from $50 million per year to $75 million per year and will extend the authorization through 2013
  • Reauthorizes the Mental Health Courts grant program (Public Law 106-515)
  • Requires that a study be completed on the prevalence of mental illness in prisons and jails
The Consensus Project reports that the bill is scheduled for consideration in the full House Judiciary Committee on November 7, 2007; it passed the Crime Subcommittee on November 1. The Senate sponsors intend to move the bill before Congress breaks for recess.

More information available at

Thursday, November 1, 2007

New resources addressing stigma and discrimination

The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration Center for Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) has redesigned its Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma Associated with Mental Illness. The new library contains more than 600 resources.

The website at features information and advice to help individuals and organizations counter discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness. It covers such topics as language, faith & spirituality, and policy & legislation.

New mental health program in Harris County jail reports on a new program in the Harris County jail that will address the needs of inmates with mental illness.

"On any given day there are 9,000 inmates there. About 20 percent of them have a history of mental illness.

The jail has now formed a new mental health unit make up of 61 specially trained officers. The jail has also spent about $1 million converting 4 cell blocks into mental health housing. Inmates will be screened during intake instead of being placed immediately in the general population."

Read more about what experts are deeming a "revolutionary program."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

ABA Article on Mental Disability and Capital Punishment

The Spring 2007 issue of Human Rights Magazine, a quarterly publication of the American Bar Association's Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities, now is available online. This issue focuses on various aspects of the death penalty and includes an article by Ron Tabak entitled "Mental Disability and Capital Punishment: A More Rational Approach to a Disturbing Subject." In his article, Tabak describes the ABA recommendation that calls for a prohibition on the death penalty for persons with severe mental illness.

Read the full ABA Recommendation and Report on the Death Penalty and Persons with Mental Disabilities, as it appeared in the Mental and Physical Disability Law Review.

Read the other articles in Human Rights Magazine.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Advancing Mental Health through Consumer Involvement

Next Thursday, October 25th, the Texas Health Institute will host a forum entitled "Advancing Mental Health through Consumer Involvement." The forum will examine the current state of consumer involvement in Texas and the United States.

Speakers include:

  • Stephany Bryan, Technical Assistance Coordinator, Federation of Families
  • Maria Felix-Ortiz, Ph.D., Visiting Assistant Professor in Psychology, University of the Incarnate Word (Dr. Felix-Ortiz has a weekly column in the San Antonio Express-News)
  • Carolyn Nava, Social Advocate, Leadership International
  • David Knudsen, Ph.D., Organizational Consultant, Oklahoma Innovation Center
  • Jack Szczepanowski, J.D., CEO, Value Options

The forum will take place from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM at the United Methodist Church Family Center; 1300 Lavaca St; Austin, TX 78701. Parking is available at the Doubletree Guest Suites; 303 W. 15th Street. A networking lunch will follow from 12:00 to 1:00 PM. Registration is free.

Contact Amanda Conway at Texas Health Institute for more information: or (512) 279-3907.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The history of HPD crisis team and why city needs it

That's the title of an op-ed that appeared this past Sunday in the Houston Chronicle by Betsy Schwartz and Steven Schnee. Schwartz is the president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston. Schnee is executive director of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.

Here is an excerpt:

"There has been much discussion recently about the Houston Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). As individuals who were involved in the establishment of CIT, we want to ensure people understand why it was originally created and how it serves our community.

Unfortunately, there are not enough mental health services in the community to meet the needs of individuals with mental illness. Until the resources are available to significantly build that capacity, law enforcement will continue to have frequent encounters with people experiencing psychiatric crises."

Read the entire op-ed at

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do you know the facts about mental illness?

Today, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Dr. María Félix-Ortiz's column in the San Antonio Express-News presents a series of true/false questions to test your knowledge about mental illness. Can you answer these questions correctly?

Mental illness is the 10th leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. True or False?

False. Mental illness is the second leading cause of death and disability in the U.S. By 2020, depression will be the leading cause of disability worldwide.

One in 4 of us will need to use mental health services at one point or another in our lives. T or F?

True. No one is immune from mental health problems; some problems are minor and quickly addressed, while others are more challenging, and some are lifelong struggles requiring ongoing medication, therapy and community support.

Schizophrenia is split personality. T or F?

False. It is a disorder of thought, emotion and perception; it is not multiple personality disorder. We call that "Dissociative Identity Disorder."

Treatments for mental illness are ineffective. T or F?

False. Mental-health services and treatment have come a long way. Treatments are effective for 70 percent to 90 percent of people who have mental illness.

Bipolar disorder is always obvious, and easy to diagnose. T or F?

False. On average, an individual with bipolar disorder will go about 10 years before getting an accurate diagnosis. About two-thirds go without adequate treatment.

Read the column in its entirety.

Editorial on Crisis Intervention Training for Houston Police

Here's an editorial that appeared October 9, 2007 in the Houston Chronicle, with regard to training the Houston police force how to deal effectively with people with mental illness:

"In the past year Houston officers have fatally shot four mentally ill people during confrontations. The rash of incidents indicates officers need much more tactical and sensitivity training in order to subdue irrational suspects while preventing unnecessary loss of life.

The Metropolitan Organization, a network of community activists, called on Mayor Bill White to institute an incentive pay program to coax officers into training as crisis intervention specialists. While the request is well-intentioned, the department is short of officers and money. Police officers should not need to be lured by more dollars to learn how to do their job and protect life.

In recent years HPD salaries have been substantially boosted. There is no need for an incentive program for police officers who already have a testing system for promotions to higher paying ranks.

As Mayor White pointed out, every HPD officer graduating from a cadet class should be an expert in dealing with the mentally ill. Unfortunately, of the nearly 4,900 officers on the force, only about 700 have had the required training. For all those in positions where they might encounter deranged suspects or supervise such situations, crisis training should be a priority.

Betsy Schwartz, head of the Mental Health Association for Greater Houston, said some officers are temperamentally unsuited for a job that requires them to control a scene without force. They should be screened out, and only properly trained officers should be sent on calls involving the mentally ill. That policy seems only reasonable, but it should not require incentive pay to implement.

State legislation already exists requiring veteran police officers to take 16 hours of training by 2009 in how to deal with mentally ill persons without resorting to violence. Yet less than 25 percent of HPD officers have taken the course two years after the Bob Meadours Act became law. The bill mandates that veteran officers must have completed the training by September 2009.

Although HPD initiated crisis training in 1999, officers have shot at least 15 mentally ill people since then. In only one of those incidents had the officer involved gone through intervention training — this despite the fact that HPD claims to have the largest officer training program for mental health in the nation. Just last month, one of HPD's trainers was in Alabama giving such instruction to the Mobile County Sheriff's Department.

It's admirable to assist other law enforcement agencies, but it would be more desirable if all appropriate Houston officers went through the program before it was marketed elsewhere. Mayor White should instruct Chief Harold Hurtt to comply with the law and make sure veteran officers receive the same crisis training that is taught to incoming cadets."

Learn more about Crisis Intervention Training from the NAMI website.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

November 9 Seminar on Restoration to Competency

On Friday, November 9, 2007, from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Capacity FOR JUSTICE and Texas Mental Health Consumers will present a seminar on "Restoration to Competency Under SB 867." It will take place at the Austin State Hospital Canteen Conference Rooms, 4100 Guadalupe, Austin, Texas, 78751.

The seminar aims to update attorneys and mental health professionals and to inform, coordinate, and apply the legal, ethical, and clinical aspects of restoration to competency under Senate Bill 867. It will feature presentations by numerous legal and mental health experts from around the state. Participants receive CME/CEU or CLE credits, as well as a comprehensive training manual.

For more information, visit or email Genevieve Hearon at

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mental Illness Awareness Week

Mental Illness Awareness Week will be observed nationwide October 7-13. Local and state chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will sponsor numerous activities throughout the country.

In Austin, NAMIWALKS for the Mind of America will take place on Saturday, October 6, 2007. Here are the details:

Registration/Check-In: 9:30 am

Walk Begins: 10:30 am
Auditorium Shores Parking Lot FREE EVENT Corner of W. Riverside Drive & S. 1st Street
Free Parking is available at One Texas Center at the corner of Barton Springs Road and S. 1st Street

This event aims to to increase public awareness about mental illness and the devastating effects that it has on the lives of millions of Americans every year and raise funds for NAMI's support, education, and advocacy programs in the Austin area.

And next Friday, NAMI Austin will host an opening reception for "Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness - A documentary of voices, stories, and portraits by Michael Nye". The reception will take place from 11:30 am to 2 pm at the Main Administration Building of Austin State Hospital, 4110 Guadalupe Street. The exhibit will run from October 12 to November 14. It is sponsored by NAMI Austin and the Austin State Hospital Volunteer Services Council.

RSVP for the reception by calling (512) 420-9810 or sending an email to

More information is available from NAMI Austin.

New Article Regarding Competency to Be Executed

Here's an abstract from a new article that appears in Psychiatric Services, a journal of the American Psychiatric Association:

"Law & Psychiatry: Death Row Delusions: When Is a Prisoner Competent to Be Executed?"
Paul S. Appelbaum, M.D.

This column examines a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Panetti v.Quarterman, which embraced a broader view of what makes death row prisoners incompetent to be executed. Although the defendant understood that he was to be executed and the state's purported reason for seeking his death--two criteria suggested by the Court's 1986 decision in Ford v. Wainwright--he suffered from a fixed delusion about the actual reason for his death. The Court indicated that competent prisoners must have a "rational understanding"of the reason that a death penalty is being imposed but declined to define a clear standard.

You can purchase the article for $15 online at:
American Psychiatric Association Psychiatr Serv 58:1258-1260, October 2007

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Lois Robison Speaks Out

The new blog of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights has posted excerpts from the speakers on its panel of families of the executed at the Third International Women's Peace Conference, which took place in Dallas this past July. The panel included Lois Robison, whose son Larry suffered from severe mental illness. Larry was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 21 years old, but could not receive long-term treatment by the state because he was "not violent." He committed the brutal crimes for which he was sentenced to death during a psychotic episode, but the jury rejected his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Larry Robison was executed by the State of Texas on January 21, 2000.

Read the comments of Lois Robison:

Monday, September 24, 2007

New Mental Health Court in Bexar County

Bexar County now joins El Paso and Dallas Counties in establishing a mental health court, which addresses the needs of those with mental illness who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Travis County has a special public defender's office for defendants with mental illness. The Justice Center, which implements the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project, estimates that well over 150 mental health courts are in operation across the country.

Here's a September 23, 2007 editorial from the San Antonio Express-News:

Editorial: For the mentally ill, grant is sign of hope

"Inadequate funding over the years has resulted in a shortage of mental health beds at state hospitals and a growing number of mentally ill individuals in the criminal justice system. Incarceration is an expensive alternative, and it usually does not adequately address the health problems of such defendants. This is clearly illustrated in today's column on Craig Stiffler by Gloria Padilla.

A recently awarded $250,000 grant from the Justice Department to fund a mental health court in Bexar County will go a long way in reducing some of the problems. A portion of the grant will fund two probation officers trained to work with the mentally ill and assigned to a court that will handle some of the mental health criminal docket.

At present, mentally ill criminal defendants are participating in a jail diversion program if they enter a plea and are placed on probation. The program is helping reduce the jail population, but it is doing little to assist the defendants themselves. With the hiring of the specially trained probation officers, Bexar County officials hope to provide a continuum of care for about 80 defendants whose cases will be assigned to County Court-at-Law No. 5 Judge Tim Johnson.

During the past decade, the county has been working to isolate the mentally ill from the regular docket and give them the individualized attention they need, but the sheer volume of the dockets has made that task difficult. Hiring two probation officers whose workload will be limited to 40 cases each, as opposed to the regular caseload of 100 or more, will help tremendously.

The county's next goal is to find the money to establish a public defender's office to represent the mentally ill in court. Without someone looking out for their best interests, the mentally ill tend to have longer stays in jail than the regular population. Their stays are also more expensive. A day in a regular jail bed is about $50 as opposed to $250 for a mental health bed.

If there were adequate health services available for the mentally ill, many of them would not end up in jail. The opening of the Haven for Hope campus of services for the homeless at the end of 2008 will help address a big part of that problem. It will bring together in one location the various agencies that provide resources for the homeless. The criminal justice system, however, also must continue to find ways to address the problem. It is in the best interest of mentally ill patients and the taxpayers to keep the mentally ill out of the county jail and assist them in finding the help they need. The wheels of justice for the mentally ill move slowly, but it's encouraging to see they are gaining momentum."

Monday, September 17, 2007

Star-Telegram Editorial on Steven Staley

Here's an editorial from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (September 15, 2007) regarding the case of death row inmate Steven Staley, who is being force to take medication for his schizophrenia:

Cruel and unusual?

"There's no denying that the 1989 slaying of restaurant manager Robert Read by a pair of scofflaws fleeing a botched robbery was unnecessary and heartless.

That doesn't diminish the state's responsibility to make sure it is acting humanely in carrying out the punishment for one of those killers, Steven Kenneth Staley.

Asked to weigh disturbingly conflicting interests in Staley's case, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals essentially punted on Sept. 12. The judges decided only that they didn't have jurisdiction to rule on whether a trial judge's order violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

State District Judge Wayne Salvant in Fort Worth had ordered the state to forcibly give Staley anti-psychotic drugs if he wouldn't take them voluntarily. Staley, who has been diagnosed with severe paranoid schizophrenia, says he believes the drugs poison him and won't take them.

But state officials want him medicated so he'll be competent enough to be executed. A Tarrant County jury voted in 1991 that he should get the death penalty for shooting Read after trying to rob a Steak & Ale in west Fort Worth. Two accomplices received long prison sentences.

In a brief opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed only whether procedural law permits an appeal of Salvant's order.

But this case isn't about proper procedure. It's about fundamental concepts about justice and what the Constitution allows. Staley was lucid when he committed the crime, but his mental health has deteriorated so much that he can be made competent only temporarily and by artificial means.

What, then, can and should the state do?

The U.S. Supreme Court has read the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to bar states from executing mentally ill inmates who don't understand the reasons they are receiving the death penalty. In another context, though, the court has said that prisons can force medication oninmates who are dangerous to themselves or others.

Salvant concluded that treating Staley, whose symptoms are alleviated by psychotropic drugs, would be in his best medical interests. But Staley's lawyers argue that forcing him to take drugs with serious side effects is not only cruel but violates his privacy. And the state has a basic motive beyond Staley's health: his death.

The justice system depends on jury verdicts being carried out unless they are unfair, unjustified or somehow tainted. But even death sentences have been commuted when circumstances warrant it. In this case, it apparently will be up to a federal court to decide what the Constitution demands.

Staley deserves punishment for a brutal crime. But if the state must forcibly drug him to achieve that, then Texans must ask themselves whether another indecent act is being committed and whether the real aims of justice are being served."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Court Dismisses Staley Appeal

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) has dismissed the appeal of death row inmate Steven Staley, who challenged an order last April from his trial judge that he must take anti-psychotic medication. Staley was convicted in the 1989 slaying of Fort Worth restaurant manager Robert Dorsey Reed during a robbery. He suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia and has been hospitalized up to 19 times while on death row. Staley often has refused to take his medication because he thinks he is being poisoned.

In 2006, Staley's February 23 execution date was set aside after he was deemed incompetent to be executed. District Judge Wayne Salvant later granted the state's motion to forcibly medicate Staley in order to render him competent enough to be executed. According to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, this is believed to be the first time that a Texas judge ordered an incompetent death row inmate to be forcibly medicated. (March 3, 2007)

Staley's attorney appealed the order, arguing that it was unconstitutional for his client to be forced to take drugs that would restore his competency and make him eligible to be put to death. On September 12, the CCA ruled that the trial court's order was not "an appealable order" and that it would not consider overturning Judge Salvant's ruling.

According to Chuck Mallin, the Tarrant County assistant district attorney who heads the office's appellate division, the state will now have to seek a new competency hearing. Staley's attorney plans to appeal in federal court.

Read the article in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:


In its Recommendation and Report on the Death Penalty and Persons with Mental Disabilities, the American Bar Association found that "... treating a condemned prisoner, especially over his or her objection, for the purpose of enabling the state to execute the prisoner strikes many observers as barbaric and also violates fundamental ethical norms of the mental health professions. ... There is only one sensible policy here: a death sentence should be automatically commuted to a lesser punishment (the precise nature of which will be governed by the jurisdiction’s death penalty jurisprudence) after a prisoner has been found incompetent for execution."

Here is the full opinion of the Court of Criminal Appeals:

"This is an appeal from the trial court's order compelling appellant to take his anti-psychotic medication. We will dismiss the appeal.

The record before the Court reflects that appellant is an incompetent-to-be-executed, death-row inmate with no scheduled execution date. Appellant's scheduled execution date of February 23, 2006, was set aside by the trial court based on a finding that appellant was incompetent to be executed. (1) The trial court also found that appellant is schizophrenic and that, as his scheduled February 23, 2006, execution date approached, appellant "refused to voluntarily take any psychotropic medications" to treat his schizophrenia. The trial court also found that appellant "appeared to be asymptomatic" during periods that he "was voluntarily taking" his medication. The trial court concluded that appellant, "during periods when he was not taking medication, posed a danger to himself." The trial court also concluded that, because "symptoms of [appellant's schizophrenia] have, in the past, been alleviated by anti-psychotic medication, treatment by these drugs would be in [appellant's] best medical interests." The trial court ordered that appellant voluntarily take his medication and that he be compelled to do so if he refuses. (2)

Appellant appealed from this order. He claims, among other things, that it is unconstitutional for the State to compel him to take anti-psychotic medication to restore his competency so that the State can execute him. (3) The State claims in a motion to dismiss this appeal that the trial court's order is not an "appealable order" under Tex. R. App. Proc. 25.2(a)(2). (4)

We agree. Section 5(a), Tex. Const., provides, in relevant part, that this Court "shall have final appellate jurisdiction coextensive with the limits of the state . . . in all criminal cases of whatever grade, with such exceptions and under such regulations as may be provided in this Constitution or as prescribed by law." Article 44.02, Tex. Code Crim. Proc., provides that "[a] defendant in any criminal action has the right of appeal under the rules hereinafter prescribed." Appellant does not cite, nor have we found, any constitutional or statutory provision or any rule that would authorize this appeal from the trial court's interlocutory order.

The appeal is dismissed."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Arkansas Death Row Inmate Granted Stay

A federal judge has granted a stay to Arkansas death row inmate Terrick Nooner to reconsider his request for a mental health examination. Nooner was scheduled to be executed on September 18.

Here's an article from the Associated Press (September 11, 2007):

Stay of Execution Granted for AR Death Row Inmate----Nooner was convicted of killing a student at a laundromat in 1993.

In Little Rock, a federal judge has issued a stay in an execution scheduled next week for an Arkansas death-row inmate convicted of killing a university student at a coin-operated laundry in 1993. Judge J. Leon Holmes issued the stay for inmate Terrick Nooner, who faced a September 18 execution date. The stay comes after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled last month that a request for mental-health professionals to examine Nooner should be reconsidered in court.

Lawyers for Nooner have argued their request for the mental examinations was not an appeal of his original conviction in Pulaski County court. Instead, the lawyers say, it was an attempt to get examinations the Arkansas Department of Correction has denied over the last year and a half. Since his incarceration, Nooner has made a number of rambling legal filings and statements about people poisoning his food, sexually assaulting him, performing witchcraft and "shooting up my blood" withdrugs and poisons.

Julie Brain, a federal public defender for Nooner, declined to comment on the judge's stay.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Pete Earley to Speak in San Antonio

Pete Earley, a former Washington Post reporter and father of an adult son who has bipolar disorder, will be giving a lecture and signing his book "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness." The event will be held at the Crowne Plaza Riverwalk Hotel, 111 E. Pecan St. in San Antonio, at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 5. The free event is part of the Family Preservation Institute's conference, and is sponsored by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill San Antonio. For more information, call NAMI at 734-3349.

You can read the first chapter of this compelling and informative book at In "Crazy," Earley presents a history of the nation's mental health sytem and explains how our country has moved from institutionalizing those with mental illness in state hospitals to incarcerating them in our jails and prisons. He spends considerable time in Miami-Dade County and presents heartbreaking case studies of individuals who have been failed by the public mental health system. It's a must read for anyone interested in the intersection of mental health and criminal justice issues!

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Mural in San Antonio Urges Compassion for Those with Mental Illness

Public art dedication

Web Posted: 08/26/2007 01:10 AM CDT
Melissa Ludwig

San Antonio Express-News

A young father whose internal demons push him away from his daughter. A mother on so much medication she cannot care for her children.

These stories of people struggling with mental illness guided local artist Adriana Garcia's brush as she created "Brighter Days" — a 20-foot-by-70-foot mural on the outer wall of the Westside Mental Health Clinic at 806 S. Zarzamora St.

On Saturday, Garcia and her crew capped five months of grueling labor with a dedication ceremony for the mural, a striking work of public art that stands as a plea for compassion for those battling depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

San Anto Cultural Arts, a nonprofit group on the West Side, organized and paid for the effort through its community mural program.

Read the full article at:

Friday, August 24, 2007

Justice Talking: Rights of the Mentally Ill

Justice Talking: Rights of the Mentally Ill

The public radio show "Justice Talking" has released a new program focused on the law and mental illness, with a particular emphasis on issues related to civil commitments. It features interviews with journalist Pete Earley, the author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, attorney John Stanley, with the Treatment Advocacy Center, and civil rights attorney Michael Allen, the former director of the fair housing program at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

The program also features the stories of individuals - and their families - living with mental illness.

A transcript will soon be available.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Fifth Circuit Overturns Death Sentence; New Trial to Consider Mitigating Evidence

Court overturns Billie Wayne Coble's death sentence

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

By Tommy Witherspoon
Waco Tribune-Herald staff writer

"A year after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay of execution for Billie Wayne Coble and 18 years after he reportedly bragged about killing three people in Axtell, the New Orleans-based appeals court has overturned Coble’s death sentence and awarded him a new trial.

In a 28-page opinion issued Tuesday afternoon, the judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the two special issues that Coble’s McLennan County jury had to answer for the death penalty to be assessed — whether he commited murder deliberately and would be a future danger to society — were unconstitutional as they were applied to him.

The special issues posed to the jury came from instructions under the Texas death penalty statute at the time. The 5th Circuit’s ruling reflects changes made since then that limit the scope of the death penalty and allow a life sentence to be imposed if Texas juries believe there is sufficient mitigating evidence to preclude the imposition of the death penalty.

Coble, now 58, has been on death row since his 1990 conviction in the August 1989 shooting deaths of his estranged wife’s parents, Robert and Zelda Vicha, of Axtell, and her brother, Waco police Sgt. Bobby Vicha.

The court rejected Coble’s claims he was the victim of ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. However, it reversed the death sentence because the judges said Coble’s jury was not allowed to give proper weight to mitigating factors that could have changed their answer to the future dangerousness issue. ...

State appeal expected

Segrest said Tuesday he expects the attorney general’s office, which represents the state in federal death penalty appeals, to ask the 5th Circuit to reconsider its ruling.

Coble’s attorneys offered testimony at trial about Coble’s troubled childhood and his traumatic experiences in combat while in Vietnam.

5th Circuit Judge Emilio M. Garza wrote that the jury might have placed more relevance on those experiences if given the opportunity by the wording of the special issues.

“'With respect to his mental illness, there was at least some evidence introduced at Coble’s trial that his post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorders were amenable to treatment,'” Garza wrote. “'Based on this evidence, the jury might have concluded that Coble, if properly treated, would be less likely to commit criminal acts constituting a continuing threat to society.

“'Similarly, the jury might have reasoned that as Coble aged and became more chronologically removed from his difficult childhood and traumatic experiences in Vietnam, his troubled background would exercise a lesser degree of influence over his actions, thereby rendering him less of a future danger.'”

Read the full story at

Fifth Circuit Remands Panetti Case

Today, August 15, 2007, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case of Scott Panetti to the District Court for the Western District of Texas "for further proceedings consistent with the opinion of the Supreme Court." The Supreme Court had overturned the Fifth Circuit's decision to allow Panetti's execution to proceed, ruling that it had used “an improperly restrictive test” in determining that his severe delusions did not render him incompetent to be executed.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which considers cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, has never found a death row inmate incompetent for execution.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mental Health Public Defenders Office Helps Clients Cut Red Tape

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mental Health Public Defenders Office Helps Clients Cut Red Tape
By Mary Alice Robbins
Texas Lawyer

A 24-year-old brain-injured man who ran away from his parents at an Austin hospital spent four days in the Travis County jail on charges of resisting arrest and failing to properly identify himself to police officers whom the parents had asked to help find him.

The young man might have spent more time behind bars if the new Travis County Mental Health Public Defenders Office had not taken his case in June.

"One of our goals is to get people with mental illness out of jail," says Jeanette Kinard, the county's mental health public defender. ...

The young man's case is typical of the types of cases the mental health public defenders office handles. Kinard, a criminal defense solo in Austin for almost 20 years before Travis County hired her on April 1, says that since April 25, her office has represented clients in about 30 cases involving failure to identify, criminal trespass, family assaults and other offenses. "We only handle misdemeanors," Kinard says.

Jim Bethke, director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, says the Travis County office is the first stand-alone mental health public defenders office in the nation. Bethke says the task force awarded Travis County a $500,000 grant in November 2006 to start the public defenders office, which, at full staff, will have two attorneys, two social workers, two caseworkers and two clerical workers.

Travis County provided $125,000 for the office in the current budget year, Bethke says. The task force awarded a four-year grant that will reduce state funding by 20 percent each year of the grant period, as the county gradually increases its funding for the office, he says.

Read full article at

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Forum Criticizes Houston Police Dept.'s Mental Health Response, Aug. 7, 2007

Quanell X forum criticizes HPD mental health response
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

Quanell X held a town hall meeting Monday in southeast Houston, hoping to call attention to mental health issues as he criticized the Houston Police Department's recent efforts to defuse crisis situations involving unstablepeople.

At least three people have been killed by HPD officers in the past several months, including last week's shooting death of Reginald Sumbler, 21. Sumbler, who called authorities July 31 and told them he planned to commit suicide, died during a standoff near his home in south Houston. HPD officials said the officers fired only after Sumbler pointed a pistol at them and shot in their direction.

"Is it safe to call HPD when you have mentally ill loved ones?" Quanell asked a crowd of about 100 at the New Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church at 12707 Cullen.A panel of mental-health professionals, lawyers and the families of people recently killed by HPD officers during confrontations answered questions about handling mentally unstable relatives. "It's a big responsibility for the family," Joseph L. Jefferson, a psychotherapist, said. "Make sure he takes his medications."

The forum also covered the process for HPD dispatchers to route emergency calls about mentally unstable people. Calls should be routed so police officers dispatched are trained to peacefully defuse the confrontations, Quanell X said.HPD Capt. Bruce Williams said about 500 officers are trained by the Crisis Intervention Team to respond to mentally ill suspects. He said HPD would liketo send a CIT-trained officers for all mentally ill suspects but does not have the manpower.
Learn more about the Crisis Intervention Team Model, which was pioneered by the Memphis Police Department in 1988 and has since been adopted in hundreds of communities around the United States.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

News from the Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project

From the July 2007 Consensus Project Newsletter:

"Nearly 30 state mental health directors gathered in Denver, Colorado earlier this month to participate in a special day-long session on criminal justice and mental health issues.
The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD), together with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, convened the meeting one day before the start of NASMHPD's summer meeting.

This meeting marked the first time NASMHPD has ever convened the state mental health directors for a session focused exclusively on criminal justice issues. The day-long session was the result of a series of meetings among a small group of state mental health directors interested in developing a blueprint for their counterparts across the country, which would chart a course for the successful reinvestment of state dollars in community-based behavioral health care services for people involved in the criminal justice system.

Participants discussed concentrating limited dollars on a "target population" of people with mental illness involved in the criminal justice system, ensuring services funded with reinvested dollars are most likely to have a positive impact on the target population, and developing outcome measures that policymakers could use to track the results of the reinvestment.

Incoming NASMHPD President, Carlos Brandenburg, administrator of the Division of Mental Health & Developmental Services within the Nevada Department of Human Resources, announced during the NASMHPD meeting that he would establish a "President's Task Force" that, together with the Justice Center, will work to develop this blueprint.

Another topic covered during the session was the role of mental health systems vis a vis crime victims. Presenters reviewed barriers that victims often encounter when seeking information about offenders ordered to receive treatment from the state mental health system, as well as steps that can be taken to address barriers. For more information on a project the Justice Center is coordinating with support from the
Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to improve responses to these victims, click here.

Various state legislators who have led justice reinvestment initiatives in their states participated in the session, including Rep. Jerry Madden (R-TX), Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-CT) and Rep. Pat Colloton (R-KS). For more information about the justice reinvestment initiatives these lawmakers have led in their states,
click here."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

ACLU Urges Tennessee Appeals Court to Reverse Death Sentence of Mentally Ill Man

ACLU Urges Tennessee Appeals Court to Reverse Death Sentence of Mentally Ill Man (7/17/2007)


NASHVILLE - The American Civil Liberties Union and the Office of the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender today urged the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to reverse the conviction and death sentence of Richard Taylor, who is severely mentally ill.

“Richard Taylor’s trial was fraught with error and injustice,” said Cassandra Stubbs, the attorney with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project who is representing Taylor on the appeal. “Our client was not competent to stand trial and was denied several fundamental rights. We hope the Court of Criminal Appeals will do the just and humane thing and right this grave wrong.”

In 2003, Taylor, who was schizophrenic, delusional and heavily sedated by forced medication, faced his two-day capital trial alone – representing himself without even standby counsel to help him. Wearing prison garb and sunglasses, Taylor called no witnesses, introduced no evidence, and presented no defense. The few cross-examination questions he posed during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial were delusional, and he was completely silent during the sentencing phase of the proceedings. The jury that sentenced Taylor to death was never presented with compelling evidence of Taylor's difficult childhood, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations or severe mental illness.

Taylor’s appeal raises numerous legal challenges to the trial and proceedings leading up to it, including the judge’s failure to hold a competency hearing during the trial when it was obvious that Taylor was incapable of standing trial and representing himself, said the ACLU. In addition, the appeal challenges the trial judge’s failure to question Taylor adequately about whether he wanted to waive his right to have the jury consider mitigating circumstances in his life, the judge's failure to appoint standby counsel, and the judge's ruling that Taylor could be forcibly medicated at trial.

Richard Taylor is represented on appeal by the ACLU’s Stubbs and Kelly Gleason of the Office of the Tennessee Post-Conviction Defender.

The ACLU’s appellate brief and more information about the case can be found online

Thursday, July 12, 2007

New Report on Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in North Carolina

July 9, 2007
North Carolina Report Examines Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

A new report from the Charlotte School of Law on mental illness and the death penalty reveals that obstacles entrenched within the criminal justice system impede efforts to identify those with severe mental illness and treat them fairly. The report, "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Diagnostic Approach," is based on a 2006 symposium hosted by the law school. It examines scientific studies of mental illness and provides an overview of laws established to protect those with mental illness from unjustly facing the death penalty. The report concludes that current legal protections are inadequate, in large part because mentally ill offenders are often allowed to undermine their own defense. Additionally, the legal definitions of mental incompetence which might spare a person from the death penalty do not align with clinical judgments that medical practitioners have to make. Moreover, jurors in death penalty cases often perceive mental illness as an aggravating - rather than a mitigating - factor.

The report concludes that a series of reforms are necessary to build a consensus between the science of mental illness and the law. In addition to its reform recommendations, the report highlights cases of mentally ill North Carolina defendants who have been sentenced to death. The report provides resolutions on this subject from the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Psychiatric Association. ("Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Diagnostic Approach," Charlotte School of Law, 2007).

The 78 page report, "Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in North Carolina: A Diagnostic Approach," is available in pdf format at:

(Source: Death Penalty Information Center)
More on North Carolina

On April 9, 2007, North Carolina Policy Watch released the results of its first “Carolina Issues Poll”, in which voters disapproved by a wide margin (52% to 30%) of the practice of sentencing offenders with severe mental illness to death. The press release can be found at Poll results can be found at

During the 2007 legislative session in North Carolina, State Senator Eleanor Kinnaird proposed allowing defendants with severe mental illness to avoid the death penalty if they were too mentally ill to understand their actions at the time of their crimes (Senate Bill 1075/House Bill 553). Under the bill, a mentally ill defendant either could ask a judge to rule on the issue before trial or ask a jury to consider it during the trial's sentencing phasee. Those already on death row could file an appeal. The bill did not specify which diagnoses qualify someone as being severely mentally ill. Rather, it defined severe mental illness as being unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of one's conduct, to use rational judgment or to conform their conduct to the law.

Neither the House nor Senate bills on mental illness and the death penalty passed out of committee during this session. North Carolina is one of at least three states, including Indiana and Washington, that considered such legislation in 2007.


Scott Panetti: Sane Enough to Execute?

July 13, 2007

Austin Chronicle

Scott Panetti: Sane Enough to Execute?

The U.S. Supreme Court's June 28 ruling in the case of Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti concludes that the law requires that condemned inmates have some "rational understanding" of why they're being executed in order to satisfy the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The court left open a single, significant question: Is Scott Panetti sane enough to die?

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy opined that the Texas courts and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' handling of the Panetti case was "flawed" and "too restrictive" to satisfy the Eighth Amendment. In deeming him sane enough to be killed, the courts considered only that Panetti "is aware that he committed the murders," that he is "aware that he will be executed," and that he is "aware that the reason the State has given for the execution is his commission of the crimes in question." But according to Panetti, the state's reason for killing him is merely a cover story intended to stop him from preaching "the gospel of the Lord King."

That is irrelevant, says Clarence Thomas, writing for the conservative, four-justice dissent. The state owes Panetti nothing more that it has already provided. "While Panetti's mental illness may make him a sympathetic figure, state and federal courts have repeatedly held that he is competent to face the consequences of the two murders he committed," Thomas wrote. Therefore, this case "should be simple," Thomas wrote. It "must be dismissed." Given Panetti's background and the procedural history of his case, one has to wonder if Thomas is at least equally addled – if not more so – than the death row denizen he so easily disregards.

Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, at their home in Fredericksburg. A diagnosed schizophrenic, Panetti previously had been hospitalized at least 11 times, last released from the hospital just two months before he killed the Alvarados. When he turned himself in to police that day, he told authorities that "Sarge" – a recurring auditory hallucination – was responsible for the murders.

In September 1994, a heavily medicated Panetti was deemed competent to be tried for the slayings, and Kerr Co. District Judge Stephen Ables allowed Panetti to represent himself at trial. Panetti wore a purple cowboy outfit to court, filed numerous rambling legal motions, and sought to subpoena nearly 200 witnesses – including Jesus Christ and Anne Bancroft. The trial was "truly a judicial farce and a mockery of self-representation," Panetti's standby attorney later said.

Panetti was convicted, each of his appeals was denied, and Judge Ables scheduled his execution for Feb. 5, 2004. Panetti's attorney filed a motion with the court claiming Panetti's mental illness rendered him incompetent to face execution. Ables denied the motion, but the federal district court ordered that he reconsider. Ables appointed two mental-health experts to assess Panetti's mental state; in April 2004, the experts concluded that Panetti's "uncooperative and bizarre" behavior was actually a sham and that he had "the ability to understand the reason he is to be executed." Ables refused to consider the defense's request for an evidentiary hearing and closed the case. Panetti's lawyers – now including Austin appellate whiz Keith Hampton – appealed. In September 2004, federal District Judge Sam Sparks called the state's handling of the case "constitutionally inadequate" but ultimately ruled against Panetti, noting that the 5th Circuit's "test for competency to be executed requires [that Panetti] know no more than the fact of his impending execution and the factual predicate for the execution."

The Supremes now say that the 5th Circuit's standard is not good enough. "The … standard treats a prisoner's delusional belief system as irrelevant if the prisoner knows that the State has identified his crimes as the reason for his execution," Kennedy wrote. There is nothing in the law to "indicate that delusions are irrelevant to 'comprehen[sion]' or 'aware[ness]' if they so impair the prisoner's concept of reality that he cannot reach a rational understanding of the reason for the execution," he wrote.

Appearing before the high court in March, Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz argued not only that the 5th Circuit's standard was sufficient but also that Panetti didn't have standing to appeal. In his initial habeas appeal, Panetti failed to claim he would be incompetent to face execution, Cruz argued; moreover, the federal district court (and, ultimately, the Supremes) failed to offer deference to the Texas courts, which have consistently deemed Panetti competent. In his dissenting opinion, Thomas agreed. In Thomas' opinion, the state courts had "more than satisfied" their legal obligation to Panetti. Panetti's insistence that he is too crazy to die, Thomas opined, is nothing more than an "abuse" of federal habeas law.

Kennedy shoots down each argument and offers a harsh rebuke to the Texas courts and, specifically, to Judge Ables. No "deference is due" to the state courts, he wrote, because the courts failed to do anything but rubber-stamp the initial competency determination. Further, Kennedy opined, Panetti could not argue his incompetence to be executed until an actual execution date had been set – otherwise, he noted, every lawyer would be forced to waste court time and resources on the off-chance that her client may at some point in the future be deemed too deluded to execute.

Ultimately, Kennedy wrote, the courts must find a way to determine whether an inmate has a rational understanding of why he is to die. It is a question of retribution vs. spite: "[I]t might be said that capital punishment is imposed because it has the potential to make the offender recognize at last the gravity of his crime and to allow the community as a whole … to affirm its own judgment that the culpability of the prisoner is so serious that the ultimate penalty must be sought and imposed," Kennedy wrote. "The potential for a prisoner's recognition of the severity of the offense and the objective of community vindication are called in question, however, if the prisoner's mental state is so distorted by a mental illness that his awareness of the crime and punishment has little or no relation to the understanding of those concepts shared by the community as a whole."

Panetti's case will return to federal district court, where Judge Sparks will be asked to decide whether Panetti is, in fact, sane enough to die.

Copyright © 2007 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.