For defendants like Guy LeGrande and Abdullah Shareef, who are significantly disabled by a severe mental illness, our system continues to fail in identifying and appropriately punishing those offenders who are the least morally culpable. Paradoxically, seriously mentally ill offenders often end up on death row because of their mental illness. In an effort to address this injustice, a bill to exempt persons with serious mental illness from the death penalty and cap the sentence for such offenders at life without parole was introduced in the last session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
For defendants like Guy LeGrande, who are significantly disabled by a severe mental illness, our system continues to fail in identifying and appropriately punishing those offenders who are the least morally culpable. Paradoxically, seriously mentally ill offenders often end up on death row because of their mental illness. In an effort to address this injustice, a bill to exempt persons with serious mental illness from the death penalty and cap the sentence for such offenders at life without parole was introduced in the last session of the North Carolina General Assembly.
CHALLENGES FACING PERSONS WITH SEVERE MENTAL DISABILITY IN DEATH PENALTY CASES
Criminal defendants with severe mental disabilities face significant challenges in the fair administration of justice. For example, due to their mental illness, defendants may be unable or unwilling to cooperate with their attorneys in the preparation of their case. A mentally disabled defendant may insist on representing himself or may waive important rights because of the effects of his illness. If a defendant is taking psychotropic drugs during trial to control his illness, he may give the jury the impression he is not remorseful, when the effects of his medication are to blame for his demeanor. Conversely, if serious mental illness is left untreated, a defendant may be belligerent, confusing, or frightening to a jury.
North Carolina’s capital trial and appeal procedures include several provisions designed to address the issue of a defendant’s mental illness, including procedures to assess competence, sanity at the time of the crime, and sentence mitigation based on mental illness. These provisions, however, are inadequate to address the complicated questions surrounding the culpability of a severely mentally ill defendant.
- Competence: The doctrine of competence arises out of the Constitutional guarantees of due process of law and meaningful assistance of counsel in the criminal process. A defendant’s competence, or capacity to proceed, may be adjudicated at various points in the trial or appellate proceedings. In North Carolina, “no person may be tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished for a crime when by reason of mental illness or defect he is unable to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to comprehend his own situation in reference to the proceedings, or to assist in his defense in a rational manner.” [Read More...]
- Insanity: Another way the issue of mental illness is addressed in criminal courts is the insanity defense. In North Carolina, insanity is an affirmative defense, and a defendant is found not guilty if he can prove that at the time of the offense, “he was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or as not to know that what he was doing was wrong.” [Read More...]
In North Carolina, when a defendant is charged capitally, there is a two part trial. The first part of the trial is the guilt / innocence phase, in which evidence is presented to a jury on whether a defendant committed the crime, and if so, whether there are any defenses which preclude a conviction for first degree murder. If a defendant is found guilty of first degree murder, the sentencing phase follows. During the sentencing hearing, the State presents aggravating factors in support of the death penalty. At the end of the proceedings, the defendant presents mitigating factors he hopes will sway the jury in favor of a life sentence. In order to support these mitigating factors, the Supreme Court requires the appointment of mental health and other experts for a defendant charged with capital murder where mental illness may be an issue during trial. Even though North Carolina law assumes mental illness will be considered as a mitigating factor by the jury, the Supreme Court has recognized the inability of jurors to appropriately consider evidence of mental disability at sentencing, finding those with mental disability “are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes.” The Atkins Court agreed that although evidence of mental disability is supposed to mitigate a sentence, jurors may consider the disability an aggravating factor because of fear or misperception. Thus, we cannot rely on current law to protect the seriously mentally ill from excessive punishment.
See Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510 (2003).
Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002).
Id., see also MELTON, ET AL., PSYCHOLOGICAL EVALUATIONS FOR THE COURTS: A HANDBOOK FOR MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS AND LAWYERS 289 (3d ed. 2007).