Mental Illness

There are multiple legal safeguards that are meant to protect the inherent dignity and civil rights of Americans with mental illness when they come into the criminal justice system. Most people assume — especially those informed by portrayals in television, books and movies — that the United States doesn’t execute people with severe mental illness. They wrongly presume that people with mental illness are protected by our laws.

Ron Honberg is national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes mental illness in the following way:
    • Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.
  • Between 1983 and 2009, over 60 people with documented mental illness or intellectual disability were executed in the United States. (ACLU National report)
  • Mental Health America estimates that 5-10% of death row inmates suffer from serious mental illness.
  • The American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have adopted a recommendation calling for a prohibition on the death penalty for those with severe mental disorders of disabilities.
  • In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty is unconstitutional for people with mental retardation or intellectual disabilities (Atkins v. Virginia). It has not excluded offenders with severe mental illness from the death penalty.
  • In a study dated July 2014, 54% of the last 100 people executed had a severe mental illness.
  • A poll conducted late last year by Public Policy Polling found that Americans oppose the death penalty for persons with mental illness by a margin of 2 to 1. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they opposed the death penalty for persons with mental illness, while only 28% favored it. Opposition was consistent across all political parties, with a majority of Democrats (62%), Republicans (59%), and Independents (51%) all indicating they opposed the death penalty for the mentally ill, and across all regions of the country. Opposition to the death penalty for persons with mental illness was also strong across both genders, and all income and education levels.


Why This Matters

  • Increasingly the Supreme Court has recognized that certain populations should not be eligible for execution. To date they have outlawed the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities and for juveniles, finding that it violates the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment to execute these individuals.    People with severe mental illness should be added to this group.  They are proven to be more at risk of wrongful conviction, are less likely to take a plea, are more likely to give false confessions and are more vulnerable to police pressure. Mentally ill defendants are also likely to have difficulty understanding their Miranda rights, often waiving their right to an attorney.
  • Imposing the death penalty on severely mentally ill offenders could be considered excessive. In Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court stated that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst offenders, those who commit “a narrow category of the most serious crimes” and whose extreme culpability makes them “the most deserving of execution.” Those suffering from severe mental illness at the time of their offense cannot be considered to fall into the group characterized by “extreme culpability.”

Recent Cases

  • Andrew Brannan
    • A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Andrew Brannan was executed in Georgia on January 13, 2015. Brannan’s attorneys asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency because Brannan suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. A police video from the crime scene illustrated Brannan’s erratic behavior. Joe Loveland, one of Brannan’s attorneys, said, “There was a direct connection between his service in Vietnam and the violence that he was exposed to there and the ultimate events that occurred here. The basic question really is, should a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran with no prior criminal record and who was 100 percent disabled under the ADA standards, both with PTSD and bipolar disorder, at the time of the murder of the deputy sheriff–should that person be executed?”
  • Scott Panetti
    • Scott Panetti is a Texas death row inmate with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Panetti represented himself at trial dressed in a cowboy outfit, and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ and the pope, among many others. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Panetti’s execution and determined that Texas had not considered Panetti’s long history of mental illness in evaluating his competency, sending the case back for further review. You must be deemed competent in order to stand trial and to be executed. The lower courts again found Panetti competent, and in October the Court denied a request for reconsideration of Panetti’s case. Greg Wiercioch, one of Panetti’s attorneys, remarked, “Scott Panetti is not competent for execution and therefore his execution would serve no retributive purpose.”  His execution was stayed again in December 2014 so that his competency could be reevaluated.
  • John Ferguson
    • John Ferguson was executed on August 5, 2013 in Florida. He had suffered from severe mental illness for more than four decades. As far back as 1965, Ferguson was found to experience visual hallucinations. He was sent to mental institutions and was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, delusional, and aggressive. In 1975, a mental health doctor described Ferguson as “dangerous and cannot be released under any circumstances.” Nevertheless, he was released less than a year later. Ferguson believed he was the “Prince of God” and was being executed so he could save the world.


Additional Articles:

ACLU – “Mental Illness and the Death Penalty,” 2009


Amnesty International – “Death Penalty and Mental Illness,” 2006


National Alliance on Mental Illness and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights – “Double Tragedies,” 2009


Angela M. Vuotto, DO and J. Richard Ciccone, MD – “Mental Illness and the Death Penalty.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, June 2006


Christopher Slobogin – “Mental Illness and the Death Penalty,” The Boalt Journal of Criminal Law, 2005