Column: Insanity is not a capital crime

Fighting fire with fire has never been a good idea, so when will our criminal justice system figure that out?

To any logical person, it would seem that spending the time and money of a long legal process and lengthy death row wait would be pointless for any crime. But America still operates on the phrase “an eye for an eye.”

If you commit a serious-enough offense, it doesn’t matter in the eyes of the law if you have a diagnosed mental illness and you weren’t able to control your actions. You’ll be executed regardless.

America: land of the (kind of) free.

The execution of the insane — those who do not understand the reason for, or the reality of, their punishment — violates the U.S. Constitution, as the Supreme Court ruled in 1986 with Ford v. Wainwright and again in 2002 with Atkins v. Virginia.

So why does this happen so often?

According to estimates from the National Association of Mental Health, 5 to 10 percent of death row inmates have serious mental illnesses.

This means that those men and women probably don’t fully understand why they are there or the consequences for their actions.

Mother Jones recently published a lengthy article by Stephanie Mencimer called “Executing the Insane Is Against the Law of the Land,” where she explained that judges rely on psychiatrists to decide whether a prisoner is too delusional for a civilized society to execute.

However, these recommendations from psychiatrists have little basis in science: They are “hired guns whose testimony can give pro-death-penalty jurists cover for rulings that otherwise would seem to contradict the dictates of the Supreme Court.”

The story of Scott Panetti, a man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression, delusions and auditory hallucinations, can give a face to the dire situation that the U.S.’s criminal justice system is drowning in.

Mecimer investigated the hired psychiatrist who was used to evaluate Panetti’s sanity. The psychiatrist had been arrested for threatening a teen with an AK-47 following a traffic incident, yet somehow the Texas courts still thought he was qualified to decide a man’s life-or-death future.

In another example, James Grigson, a.k.a. “Dr. Death”, was a psychiatrist -— now discredited — known for testifying in capital trials and deeming all defendants sociopaths with responsibility for their actions rather than mentally ill people with no handle on reality.

How much money do the states pay these quack psychiatrists to send mentally ill men and women to death row? It’s not cheap for the American people either.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, cases without the death penalty cost $740,000 while cases where the death penalty is sought cost $1.26 million. On top of that, it costs taxpayers $90,000 more per year for each death row prisoner than for a prisoner in general population.

We spend all this money just to kill people whom we are constitutionally obligated not to kill.

Mecimer wrote about one mentally ill death row inmate who was wearing a box on his head until the day of his execution, and another one who referred to himself as a “Prince of God.”

Executing mentally ill is not only immoral, but a lose/lose situation. It’s costing some their lives, and the rest of us just have to pay more for it.

But in 2015, we’ve decided it’s easier to kill the ill than to find them help. Cutting mental health services is called “fiscal responsibility,” while increasing spending on prisons is being “tough on crime.” Until citizens or courts put an end to this, people will continue to die — but that’s the passive wording. More accurately, our government will continue to murder people in our own name.

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Trey Ross is a journalism sophomore. Follow her on Twitter.


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