Tuesday, October 21, 2008

OpEd: Mental illness must be in consideration

Here's an OpEd from George Haley, a mental health advocate in Tennessee, in which he offers his perspective as to why the death penalty is inappropriate for offenders with severe mental illness. This appeared on October 16, 2008 in The Tennessean: http://www.tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081016/OPINION01/810160338/1008.

In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly created a committee to examine Tennessee's death penalty system for fairness and accuracy. The committee will conclude its work in December 2008, issuing its recommendations to the legislature in January 2009.

Thus far, the committee has highlighted a number of serious problems, including the lack of adequate defense services for those charged with capital murder, the failure to collect and analyze critical information about death penalty trials and appeals, the lack of accurate information concerning the cost of the death penalty to taxpayers, as well as the number of inmates with severe mental illness on Tennessee's death row.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Atkins v. Virginia decision held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute defendants with mental retardation. In making this decision the court determined that the disabilities of those with mental retardation "do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability." Tennessee was one of 18 states that had already banned the death sentence for those with mental retardation prior to the Supreme Court decision.

Mentally ill not culpable

Currently, defendants diagnosed with severe mental illness are still eligible for the death penalty in Tennessee, even though the most severely mentally ill- those suffering from delusions, hallucinations, or significant disruptions of consciousness - are no more culpable than those with mental retardation. Though mental illness is a significant problem in our nation's prisons, only a small percentage of death row inmates suffered from the most severe mental illness at the time their crimes were committed.

Exempting the most seriously ill inmates from the death penalty does not exempt them from other penalties, such as life without parole or a life sentence. But, such an exemption does allow for a quicker resolution for victims' families while reducing the costs of lengthy appeals and providing a more humane approach toward those who are most ill.

In Tennessee, Richard Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a correctional officer - a crime committed only after prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication.

Over the next 20 years, Taylor stood trial twice despite his severe mental illness. Finally, in March 2008, Taylor's sentence was reversed by a Tennessee appeals court after he agreed to a life sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. Imagine the years of suffering for the victim's family and costs that could have been avoided if Taylor was ineligible for a death sentence and instead received a life sentence from the start. The state spent millions of dollars to seek death for a man who ultimately received a life sentence anyway. Regardless of one's feelings about the death penalty, Tennessee cannot afford to allow the execution of those with severe mental illness when less costly alternatives are available.

George Haley has served as president of NAMI-TN; chairman of the board oftrustees of Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute; chairman of the board ofdirectors of Park Center, a psycho-social rehabilitation center; and a memberof the Board of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Free Webinar: Law Enforcement and People with Mental Illnesses

On Tuesday, October 28, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, with support from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, will sponsor a one-hour webinar during which "national experts in law enforcement and mental health will discuss effective crisis response models. They will outline how community behavioral health care providers and law enforcement can collaborate and tailor responses to the problems of their jurisdiction. The webinar spotlights Improving Responses to People with Mental Illnesses: The Essential Elements of a Specialized Law Enforcement-Based Program, a report supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. Written by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Police Executive Research Forum, it highlights 10 key components for improving officers' encounters with individuals with mental illnesses."

Presenters include Captain Richard Wall, Los Angeles Police Department; Fred Osher, M.D., Director of Health Systems and Services Policy, CSG Justice Center; and Melissa Reuland, Senior Research Consultant, Police Executive Research Forum.

Registration is free but is limited to the first 1,000 people. To register, go to http://www2.eventsvc.com/nationalcouncil/, select the law enforcement/mental health event, and enter the coupon code COUNCIL at checkout.

If you are registering for a webinar for the first time, create a profile with the email and password of your choice. A confirmation with webinar access information will be sent to the email address you enter.

Participation will require Internet access and a phone line. Participants from the same location are encouraged to use a single phone line - one individual may register and get access information for the whole group.

Contact Communications@thenationalcouncil or call 301.984.6200 with questions.

For more information, go to http://consensusproject.org/updates/announcements-and-events/Oct2008/webinaroct08.

Candidates for Harris County District Attorney Address Issue of Mental Illness

On November 4, voters in Harris County will elect a new district attorney. In an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle ("Race for DA puts justice system on trial," October 12, 2008), candidates C.O. Bradford and Pat Lykos expressed interest in reform, with a particular emphasis on addressing the needs of inmates with mental illness. Here are excerpts:

"Harris County voters looking for a district attorney candidate with a 'tough on crime' theme are out of luck this fall.

The situation is a startling departure from the law-and-order tone set for the last 30 years by Republican former district attorneys John B. Holmes Jr. and Chuck Rosenthal.

But Rosenthal resigned in disgrace early this year, opening the door for Democratic candidate C.O. Bradford and Republican candidate Pat Lykos, former police officers who have never prosecuted a criminal case, to put the local justice system on trial instead.

Bradford, the former Houston police chief, and Lykos, a former felony court judge, make sure to mention, in a county known nationwide for its frequent use of the death penalty, that the worst criminal offenders should be prosecuted to the hilt. But, despite substantive differences between the contenders, they both put greater emphasis on reforming the system so that many minor offenders get drug or mental illness treatment rather than a cell in the already crowded jail.

'Simply locking everybody up for everything isn't going to get us out of the process we are in now,' Bradford said. 'Our taxes are high, the jails are full and crime continues to go up. So let's exercise good stewardship of fiscal resources, reduce crime and understand that most people who commit offenses are salvageable, they can be rehabilitated, but they must be given realistic opportunities to reintegrate back into our society.

'That's not occurring and there are a number of reasons for that ... There are a lot of people who make a lot of money, billions of dollars, designing, building, constructing (prisons) and there's not a concern about whether you are guilty or innocent. They get paid to keep a warm body there. That's not justice.'

Lykos called this 'a critical period in our county. We have a tarnished law enforcement system. It is bad for justice, it is bad for public safety and it's bad for business. I pledge to you to restore public trust and confidence in the district attorney's office.'" ...

The article reports that "As chief, Bradford upgraded the domestic violence unit and established a crisis intervention team for encounters with mentally ill suspects. Coincidentally Lykos, who would be the county's first female DA, aimed many of her creative sentencing approaches at healing family strife and getting treatment for mentally ill inmates."

Read the full article.

New Resources for Victims of Crimes Committed by People with Mental Illness

Last month, the Council of State Governments Justice Center published two guides on the rights of individuals who have been victimized by people with mental illnesses - the first ever national publications on this topic. Both were supported by the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

The first, Responding to People Who Have Been Victimized by Individuals with Mental Illnesses, details steps policymakers, advocates, and mental health professionals can take to understand and protect the rights and safety of these crime victims. It reflects the views of forensic directors, prosecutors, victim advocates, and victims of crimes committed by people with mental illnesses. The guide describes current policies and practices used in selected jurisdictions to respond to this group of victims, outlines barriers to upholding victims’ rights in such cases, and highlights action items for communities to consider.

The second report, A Guide to the Role of Crime Victims in Mental Health Courts, offers practical recommendations to mental health court practitioners about how to engage crime victims in case proceedings.

Go to http://justicecenter.csg.org/media/press_releases to read the full press releases for each guide.

Learn more and download both resources at
http://consensusproject.org/issue-areas/victims/vpmi/. Hard copies can be ordered while supplies last through the National Criminal Justice Reference Service at www.ncjrs.gov (NCJ 223345).

Families Affected by Mental Illness and the Death Penalty Gather in San Antonio

On Friday, October 3, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) launched a groundbreaking new project, Prevention Not Execution (sound familiar?!), which brings together victims' families and families of the executed, all of whom had been affected by mental illness, murder, and the death penalty.

After a private gathering involving the participants, who travelled from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in Texas, the organizations held a press conference that featured Nick and Amanda Wilcox, Lois Robison, Kim Crespi, and Bill Babbitt. Ed Dickey, the head of NAMI San Antonio, and Ron Honberg, the Legal and Policy Director of NAMI, also spoke about this collaborative effort from the perspective of the nation's leading mental health advocacy organization.

The press conference included a powerful ceremony during which all of the participants placed a rose in a vase and lit a candle in remembrance of their loved ones, the victims' of these crimes, and the perpetrators.

You can view photos from the event and read the moving statements of each speaker at http://mvfhr.blogspot.com/.

In addition, WITNESS, a global human rights organization that uses video and online technologies to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations, is featuring online video from the event launch. The video appears on the home page of The HUB, the first global platform dedicated to human rights media and action. It includes portions of statements by Nick and Amanda Wilcox, Kim Crespi, and Bill Babbitt, as well as a portion of the remembrance ceremony that concluded the event. Here is the link to the video: http://hub.witness.org/en/node/8928 (you might need to install flash to view the content).
MVFHR will be conducting interviews with other family members who were not able to attend the San Antonio event and will release a report on this effort next summer.

Message to PNP Readers

Dear Prevention Not Punishment Readers,

Thank you so much for supporting this blog over the last year and a half. I apologize that my postings have been rather sparse these last couple of months.

My Soros Justice Fellowship officially ended on September 1, 2008, which means that I no longer am focusing exclusively on issues related to mental illness and the death penalty. While I now have less time to devote to the blog than I would like, I aim to do my best to maintain it with up-to-date information. The following postings capture some *recent* developments on these important issues.

As always, your comments and ideas for future postings are much appreciated.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

TX Death Row Inmates Lose Appeals

Here's an update from the Associated Press regarding two Texas cases that involve issues of severe mental illness ("2 condemned killers in Texas lose appeals," October 8, 2008):

"A North Texas auto mechanic whose original death sentence for the 1987 murders of a man and a 4-month-old child was overturned on appeal had his 2nd death sentence upheld Wednesday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

In 1 of 2 death row cases rejected by the state's highest criminal appeals court, lawyers for inmate James Eugene Bigby contended there were 15 errors at his 2nd punishment trial in Tarrant County where jurors in September 2006 deliberated about 4 hours before handing down another death sentence.

In a 2nd case, the Austin-based appeals court upheld the conviction and death sentence of a Grayson County man accused of killing his wife, their son and her daughter. Andre Thomas, now 25, confessed to fatally stabbing all three in their chests in March 2004 and ripping out their hearts.

Neither Thomas nor Bigby has an execution date.

Bigby, now 43, had been convicted and condemned in 1991 for shooting MikeTrekell, who was cooking steaks for himself and Bigby, and drowning Trekell's 4-month-old son, Jayson, in a bathroom sink on Christmas Eve. He confessed to the slayings but pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

The 2 were among four people killed during a seven-hour spree by Bigby in Fort Worth and Arlington.
The 1st jury convicted Bigby of capital murder just hours after he grabbed a loaded gun from a drawer in state District Judge Don Leonard's bench, charged into Leonard's chambers and pointed the gun at him. The judge, a prosecutor and a bailiff eventually wrestled the gun away from Bigby.

Defense witnesses had testified that Bigby was a paranoid schizophrenic, but the jury rejected Bigby's insanity defense. The former Kennedale automechanic appealed.

In 2005, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Bigby's conviction but overturned his sentence, saying it violated a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that juries should consider mitigating factors, such as mental illness, when deciding whether a defendant should die. The court said paranoid schizophrenia is a severe mental illness, and that Bigby had proven he had it at the time of the slayings.

Bigby's lawyers didn't dispute his actions but noted he'd been treated three times for mental disorders before the killings. They argued he shouldn't be executed because his paranoid schizophrenia and frustrations about a workers' compensation claim led to the killing spree. Prosecutors said drug use and his aggressive personality led to the killings.

In the latest appeal, Bigby challenged selection of some of the jurors, argued the indictment and jury instructions were faulty, again questioned the legality of mitigating evidence issues and the legality of the drugs used for lethal injection.

In Thomas' case, the maintenance man and laborer contended in his appeal that his trial court judge erroneously allowed into evidence video and audio tapes of his statements to police where he told about killing his estranged wife, Laura Christine Boren, their 4-year-old son, Andre Lee, and the woman's 13-month-old daughter, Leyha Marie Hughes.

He was convicted specifically of the infant's death.

Thomas, from Texoma, walked into the Sherman Police Department and told a dispatcher he had just murdered the three and had stabbed himself in the chest. He was taken to a hospital and agreed to speak with officers there. He also spoke later with detectives at the police department.

A judge said he understood rights and warnings that were explained to him.

Defense lawyers argued he suffered from mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse.

The appeals court, in upholding the conviction, ruled Thomas knowingly and intelligently waived his rights. The court also rejected arguments contesting jury selection and challenging introduction of crime scene photos and autopsy results of the victims other than the infant.

Other arguments turned down by the appeals court involved prosecution testimony about Thomas' sanity, that the court should have ruled on his competency before the trial, that his defense lawyers were incompetent and that the jury engaged in misconduct because following their verdicts they told the judge and lawyers they'd wanted to hear true remorse from Thomas.

In his statement to police, Thomas told how he put his victims' hearts in his pocket and left their apartment, took them home, put them in a plastic bag and threw them in the trash."

This article doesn't mention that Thomas gouged out his own eyeball while in a cell at the Grayson County jail, where he was awaiting trial. He was then declared incompetent to stand trial and sent to a mental hospital, but was released from care several months later. Doctors claimed that his condition had improved to the point that he would be able to understand the charges against him and help with his own defense.

Thomas' attorneys argued that he committed his crimes while suffering from severe, religious-based delusions about his wife. He was said to have quoted a Bible verse when he gouged out his eye: "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.'' (Mark 9:47)