Tuesday, September 23, 2008

MVFHR/NAMI Gather Next Week in San Antonio

Media Advisory
September 23, 2008

National Project Launch

Murder Victims’ Families Oppose Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illnesses

Washington, D.C.— Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) will launch a national project opposing the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses at a press conference in San Antonio, Texas on October 3.

The initiative builds on recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that raise questions about the capacity of individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses sentenced to death to understand why they are being executed or even that they will die. A national report on the issue will be released in June 2009, based in part on testimony from family members at San Antonio event.

WHAT: National project launch—press conference

WHEN: Friday, October 3, 2008 3:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.

WHERE: University of the Incarnate Word
Bonilla Science Hall 129
Hildebrande—just west of Broadway intersection
San Antonio, TX 78209

WHO: Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

- Renny Cushing, MVFHR Executive Director
- Ron Honberg, NAMI Policy & Legal Director
- Bill Babbitt, brother of a Vietnam veteran, who was diagnosed with PTSD and schizophrenia, killed a 78-year old woman, and was executed.
- Lois Robison, a mother whose mentally ill son was discharged from a hospital when his insurance ran out. A county hospital could not admit him unless he became violent. He killed five people. Instead of treatment, he got the death penalty.
- Kim Crespi, mother of victims murdered by husband who suffers from mental illness
- Amanda & Nick Wilcox, parents of victim who was murdered by a person with mental illness
- Other family members of murder victims or executed persons from around the United States

MVFHR is a national organization of family members of murder victims and families of the executed. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by mental illnesses.


Susannah Sheffer for MVFHR: 617-512-2010 (cell) or
Christine Armstrong for NAMI: 703-312-7893 or christinea@nami.org


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Monday, September 15, 2008

NAMI/MVFHR Gathering in San Antonio

This column by Dr. María Félix-Ortiz appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on September 10, 2008.

Capital punishment of the mentally ill focus of meeting

This new millennium has seen substantial review of capital punishment.

In 2002, in Atkins vs. Virginia, the Supreme Court wrote that the intellectually disabled can be competent, “but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability.”

This overturned a 13-year-old decision that had allowed execution of the mentally ill.
In 2005, the court opined that a juvenile's “immature and irresponsible behavior,” vulnerability to and lack of control over his environment and the fact that he was still developing his identity indicated diminished culpability. In Roper vs. Simmons, the court ruled that a juvenile's diminished culpability meant that execution couldn't serve as retribution or as deterrence of capital crimes.

Could similar reasoning apply to capital punishment of mentally ill offenders?

Mental illness and capital punishment are the focus of a national meeting co-sponsored by National Alliance for Mental Illness and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights at the University of the Incarnate Word on Oct. 3 at 3 p.m. (in BSH 129). Speakers, who will share their perspectives as family members of murder victims and the executed murderers, include:

Bill Babbitt: His brother was executed in California for assaulting and killing a 78-year-old grandmother. Manny was a Marine who served two tours in Vietnam, after which he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Babbitt remarks (see www.mvfhr.org), “The police promised me that Manny would get the help he needed. For the rest of my life I have to live with the fact that I turned my brother in and that led to his death.”

Lois Robison: Her son became ill with paranoid schizophrenia. Larry was discharged after 30 days, as soon as he turned 21, because he wasn't covered by his parents' insurance. Robison took him to the county hospital, which discharged him and said “not to take him home.” He couldn't be hospitalized unless he was violent. Larry's first episode of violence was to kill five people. Robison remarks, “They told us if he ever got violent they would give him treatment and instead they gave him the death penalty.”

Amanda Wilcox: Her daughter, Laura, a receptionist, was killed by a man who had paranoid schizophrenia.

This event launches a national effort to collect interviews and generate a report to the next NAMI national conference. NAMI and MVFHR hope to educate us about this complex issue.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Effort to ban the death penalty for offenders with mental illness gains momentum in Kentucky

Here's an excerpt from a lengthy article that appeared on September 3 in LEO, the alternative weekly paper in Louisville, Kentucky. The article ("Crazy and Condemned - Kentucky Could Be the First State to Ban Executions of the Severely Mentally Ill") chronicles an emerging effort in Kentucky to secure a legislative prohibition on the death penalty for offenders with severe mental illness. Other states may also introduce legislation during their 2009 sessions.

"It was clear from the beginning Eugene Gall was guilty. It also was clear he was insane.

Driving through a Cincinnati suburb on the morning of April 5, 1978, Gall — a paranoid schizophrenic with a criminal past — spotted a young girl walking alone through the tranquil neighborhood. The 12-year-old girl was on her way to school.

Two hours later, a motorist driving down a stretch of rural highway in northern Kentucky noticed a red windbreaker on the side of the road and stopped to retrieve it. About a mile later, she noticed a textbook in the road and pulled over once again.

Assuming the lost items belonged to a student at the local elementary school, the woman called the principal to report finding the jacket and a book bearing the name Lisa Jansen, written neatly inside the front cover. The principal told her no student by that name attended the school.

Later that afternoon, television newscasts began reporting that Lisa Jansen was missing. By the time the woman called police to report what she had found, they already had a suspect: Eugene Gall.
Just hours after Jansen vanished, police responded to a report of robbery at a small grocery store in Gardnersville, Ky., a tiny town about 20 miles east of Interstate 71. Officers raced into the parking lot as Gall tried to exit, armed with a .357 magnum revolver and $112 from the register. Gunfire erupted, and Gall shot and injured two cops and a bystander before he was captured.

After reviewing Gall’s rap sheet, police questioned him about the missing girl.

In 1970, Gall had been charged with several counts of rape, but a judge found him mentally incompetent to stand trial. He spent 19 months in a mental institution where doctors treated him with anti-psychotic drugs. Eventually, Gall was deemed competent and he pleaded guilty to the charges — although he claimed not to remember the rapes — and spent five years in a state penitentiary.
When police asked Gall if he had any information about Lisa Jansen’s disappearance, he did not deny involvement. Instead, he insisted he could not recall his whereabouts that morning.

The next day, after police found the girl’s body alongside a remote creek in northern Kentucky, 30 miles from her home, Gall was charged with kidnapping, rape and murder. Ultimately, a jury in Boone County, Ky., convicted Gall and sentenced him to death.

'He was severely mentally ill and there was an insanity defense raised, but the jury did not go that way,' says Edward Monahan, a longtime defense lawyer who represented Gall on appeal years later. 'The problem is that juries are very rarely able to bring themselves to make that finding, probably because they fear the person’s release into society and their safety being in danger.'

The jurors undoubtedly saw a monster who — regardless of mental illness — committed a gruesome crime, and they were unwilling to risk sending Gall to a psychiatric facility because he might one day be released. It’s a pervasive fear that compels juries to send inarguably insane defendants not only to prison, but also to death row.

But a growing consensus of legal experts and mental health professionals are pushing for an end to executing the severely mentally ill, claiming the punishment is inappropriate and unconstitutional in cases where a person’s insanity likely led to a crime.

The movement is gaining momentum nationwide and in Kentucky, where state lawmakers are expected to consider a bill next session that would prohibit the execution of the severely mentally ill. If approved, Kentucky would become the first state to enact such a ban.

The law would apply only to a narrow pool of defendants, and would ensure that those convicted still are severely punished, as opposed to institutionalized. They could face life in prison without parole — just not execution.

'When someone behaves in a way that hurts other people substantially, there should be accountability, but the accountability should be based on the culpability of the individual,' says Monahan, who took over as the state’s chief public defender Sept. 1. 'Someone who is severely mentally ill has less ability to be accountable for their conduct. … The ultimate penalty ought not be applied to people who cannot fully control their behavior.'... ”

Read the article in full.