Amnesty says U.S. executes many mentally ill
At least 10 percent of the first 1,000 people executed in the United States since 1977, were severely mentally ill, Amnesty International said in a report issued on Monday.
The London-based human rights organization, which opposes all forms of capital punishment, said the practice of putting to death people with serious mental illnesses offends international standards of decency.
“For the USA to be pursuing this premeditated ritualistic killing in the 21st century of offenders suffering from serious mental illness is particularly offensive to widely held standards of decency,” Amnesty said.
The number of people executed in the United States since 1977, when the Supreme Court ended a 10-year moratorium on capital punishment, passed 1,000 last month with the December 2 execution of Kenneth Boyd in North Carolina.
Amnesty said a review of psychiatric examinations, medical records and documented cases of extreme behavior found at least 100 of the condemned prisoners had clearly cataloged cases of severe mental illness. In other cases it was impossible to determine whether inmates were mentally ill since many never received a thorough psychiatric examination.
The statistical arm of the Department of Justice issued a report in 1999 stating that an estimated 283,000 mentally ill individuals were held in U.S. prisons and jails, around 15 percent of the total incarcerated population.
There are some 2.2 million people currently behind bars in the United States, making the country’s prison system the largest in the world.
Amnesty also cited an estimate by the National Association of Mental Health that 5 to 10 percent of the 3,400 people on death rows around the nation were mentally ill.
“Prejudice and ignorance give rise to fear and for many people it is easier to sentence a mentally ill person to death than to find genuine treatment solutions,” said Susan Lee, Amnesty’s American programs director.
The report cited the case of Scott Panetti, sentenced to death in 1995 for killing his parents-in-law. He has a long history of hospitalizations for mental illnesses that cause him to experience hallucinations.
Panetti represented himself at his trial where he dressed as a cowboy, rambled, asked irrational questions and scared jurors. His case remains under appeal.
Amnesty said that some of those who have cut short their appeals and “volunteer” to be executed were mentally ill. Other defendants had been medicated so that they would be lucid enough to be aware of what was happening to them at the time of their own execution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that it was unconstitutional to execute criminals who are mentally retarded. Last year, it also banned executions of defendants for crimes committed under the age of 18.
A Gallup poll last October showed 64 percent of Americans favored the death penalty - the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.
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