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.


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