A Veteran’s Plea: Stop Executing People with Severe Mental Illness

Taking the death penalty off the table for people with severe mental illness respects the fundamental dignity of each human being.

I know firsthand what it is like to live with severe mental illness. I am a former Marine Corps captain who served during the Vietnam War. I received a medical discharge after being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In the 1960s and ’70s, I was hospitalized for this condition some ten times, mostly involuntarily.

I did not choose to have a severe mental illness. No one with mental illness chooses it.

But I was fortunate and received excellent treatment. After my service, I went on to earn a doctorate in psychology and become a licensed psychologist in the State of Ohio. I have been practicing for more than 40 years and now help train the next generation of mental health professionals as a faculty member at two medical schools.

As a mental health practitioner, I am proud of the growth that has occurred across this country in the understanding and treatment of mental illness. However, as a recipient of services, I am also keenly aware of a dangerous gap in this understanding: we are still willing to execute people with severe mental illness for crimes that occurred in the throes of their illness. No civilized country should allow this to happen.

Supporters and opponents of the death penalty agree that it should only be reserved for the most culpable and deliberate of criminals who commit heinous crimes. My experience as a practitioner who has himself experienced psychosis or a flight from reality has taught me that people with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder do not possess that level of culpability during these times. When people with severe mental illness commit violent crimes, they are often acting out of irrational fears or in response to imaginary voices. Many individuals who have experienced psychosis describe it as like being in a dream or a nightmare. Should we be executing individuals for actions they have taken when they are detached from reality?

The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous, but a small number do commit serious crimes, often in the depths of psychosis when they are only partly in touch with reality. The law allows such offenders to be sentenced to life in prison with no parole, but it should stop short of execution.

This is a problem we can fix. Legislators in eight states — Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia — have filed bills to exempt people with severe mental illness from the death penalty. The United States already excludes people with intellectual disabilities and juvenile offenders from the death penalty because of their diminished mental capacity. The same compassion should apply to people with severe mental illness.

Commonly misunderstood, the “insanity defense” offers little protection in these circumstances. It is rarely used and very difficult to apply. Only those who have completely lost touch with reality can be deemed insane, which typically removes their case from prosecution. Severe mental illness is more common and needs a different approach. Severe mental illness is often misunderstood by jurors and courts, who may even consider it to be an additional reason to impose the death penalty, rather than a reason to opt for a sentence of life without parole.

The bills being proposed to remedy this situation are well balanced, taking into account society’s need for reliability and safety. They require that each defendant be evaluated individually — usually by a judge, who carefully considers expert testimony. The exemption does not absolve defendants of legal responsibility for their crimes, but does spare them from a death sentence.

The legislation is important for many reasons, but one of them is close to my heart. A new generation of service men and women has come home from Afghanistan and Iraq, with many suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, traumatic brain injury, or other invisible scars of war. A very small number may commit heinous and senseless crimes. Our justice system should respond firmly, but with compassion and understanding for those who volunteered to serve our county. They should not face execution.

I have been on both sides of the mental health system — as a consumer and as a caregiver. Taking the death penalty off the table for people with severe mental illness is a sensible, humane response that respects the fundamental dignity of each human being.