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Should People with a Mental Illness Be Exempt from the Death Penalty?

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Should People With a Mental Illness Be Exempt From The Death Penalty?

Brenda Steffes


May 11, 2015

Ann Wehrman

Should Mentally Ill People Be Exempt From The Death Penalty?

Serial Killer Jeffery Dahmer was sentenced to over 900 years in prison after pleading not guilty by reason of insanity in 1992.  It was obvious to some people that Dahmer had mental health issues during his adolescence and adult life, nonetheless he was held accountable for his conduct by 12 of his peers.  When making a decision in a death penalty case a judge can take certain considerations when dealing with a mentally ill person.  "There are not enough programs to treat and house (mentally ill) people to keep them out of the criminal justice system." (Sullo, M., 2015).

When people with a mental illness are not able to get the treatment or the services they need, they can become violent, and the death penalty is not the answer to the problem of violence committed by a person with severe mental illness; however, nobody can explain “insanity” clearly, though legitimate organizations have a trio of methods to decide if a perpetrator must be culpable for that persons conduct.  

There are three tests that the legal system uses to determine whether a perpetrator can use the insanity defense, when on trial. The first test is diminished capacity. Did the perpetrator know what he or she was doing was right or wrong at the time of the crime? The second test is criminal intent. Did the perpetrator plan out the crime ahead of time and plan to act the way they did? Finally, the third test is unavoidable actions.  The perpetrator might not have been able to stop what they were doing at the time of the crime.  Countless professionals say “broad” evaluations are unreliable.  They say the importance falls on whether the perpetrators awareness or grasp of the real world is compromised.   "A perpetrator should go unpunished ... only if he is found to be completely divorced from reality by diagnosticians from both sides, a far cry from today's insanity defense."(Vaknin, Sam, 2015)  About 300,000 convicts are mentally impaired in some way.  Mentally ill persons facing a legal proceeding must meet the requirements of any of the three tests to be able to use the insanity defense.  People with a mental illness are affected in every step, as they go through the legal process.  Mental illness is defined as "Any of various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual's normal cognitive, emotional, or behavioral functioning, and caused by social, psychological, biochemical, genetic, or other factors, such as infection or head trauma."(American Civil Liberties Union, 2015)

What constitutes as a mental illness when deciding a death penalty case?  There are a variety of illnesses that can be used in a death penalty case.  Here are some examples:

Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Schizoaffective Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression, or Recurrent Thoughts of Death or Suicide.

All of these examples of mental illness can have severe effects on the person experiencing them, if they go without treatment. They also can have an effect on the actions that a mentally ill person performs, when dealing with a violent crime.  If mentally ill people are properly treated for these illnesses, they can lead long, fulfilled, productive lives, without committing violent crimes.  People with a mental illness are more likely to give false statements and confess to crimes they did not commit when talking to law enforcement officers, more so, if they maintain fixed false beliefs even when they are confronted with the facts.  Over 60 people deemed to have a mentally illness have been put to death in America since 1983.  



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