Friday, December 6, 2013

Mental Illness And The Death Penalty: Can The Aurora Theater Shooter Be Executed If He Is Mentally Ill?

In November of 2013, the defense team for the Aurora theater shooting suspect filed five separate motions with the court. These motions were written after the court had received the sanity evaluation from the state mental health hospital in Pueblo, Colorado. At the present time, the public does not know exactly what the sanity evaluation says. But, we have some clues.

For example, one of the defense motions requests that the death penalty be taken off the table because the shooter has a severe mental illness that would render execution a violation of his 8th Amendment Right against cruel and unusual punishment. So, although we do not know if the report suggests the shooter is insane, it is likely to document a significant mental illness--probably something like Schizophrenia.

The court will hear arguments on this motion soon, but there are two landmark US Supreme Court cases that will heavily affect the judge's ruling. Here they are:

Ford v. Wainwright (1986): In this case, the Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional for a person to be executed if he is insane at the time of the execution. In this case, insanity at the time of execution is different than insanity at the time of the crime. In order to be insane at the time of execution, a person with a mental illness must be 1. Unaware of the punishment he is about to face, and 2. Unaware of why he is about to receive his punishment.

So, if a person with a severe mental illness is aware he is about to be killed by the state because of the crime he committed, he would be deemed sane under the Ford v. Wainwright standard. His execution would then be legal.

Except, the Court further clarified its definition of insanity with the following case:

Panetti v. Quarterman (2007): In this case, the defendant understood he was about to be executed because the state said he killed someone. But, he was under the delusional belief that the government was actually executing him for political reasons.

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that even if a defendant can identify the punishment and the stated reason for the punishment, a mental illness could render him insane if it keeps him from comprehending the meaning and purpose of the execution.

Because of these two precedents, it is important for defense teams to understand if their client is sane at the time of execution after their client has been convicted. Typically, forensic psychologists will conduct an evaluation to determine if the person understands he is about to be killed, understands the stated reason for his execution, and comprehends to meaning and purpose of the execution. If he is found to be incapable in one of those three areas due to a mental illness, a Court should find him insane and rule he is ineligible for the death penalty.

If a severely mentally ill defendant is found to be competent in the three above-mentioned areas, he can be executed, despite his mental illness.

The problem, in my mind, with the Aurora shooter's defense team arguing his mental illness makes him ineligible for the death penalty at this point is that it is too soon. Presumably, he has not undergone a 'competency to be executed' evaluation yet. And, even if he is convicted, it will be years before he faces the death penalty. Many things can happen over such a long timespan, and a person with a severe mental illness can improve greatly over the course of time.

I am not a lawyer, and I am not the judge in the Aurora theater shooting case. I am also not a huge fan of the death penalty, nor am I a fan of the shooter. However, based on past case law, it seems to me that the judge will have no choice but to deny the defense's motion to remove the death penalty in this case at this time.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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