Thursday, October 8, 2009

Statement from MVFHR and NAMI on World Days

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
National Alliance on Mental Illness

Statement on World Day Against the Death Penalty
and World Mental Health Day
October 10, 2009

The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty has designated October 10th “World Day
Against the Death Penalty,” and the World Federation for Mental Health has designated
October 10th “World Mental Health Day.” Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights
and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have taken the occasion of these two interesting
“World Days” to issue the following statement:

Today is a day of two calls to action: a call to end the death penalty and a call to
make mental health treatment a global priority. As organizations who have
come together to form the “Prevention, Not Execution” project, we bring
these two calls together and declare that it is time to end the death penalty for
people with mental illness.

This past year, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and the National
Alliance on Mental Illness released a report called Double Tragedies: Victims Speak
Out Against the Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness, giving voice to
families throughout the United States whose lives have been forever changed
by the intersection of murder, mental illness, and the death penalty. Two
months later, Amnesty International issued a report titled Hanging by a thread:
mental health and the death penalty in Japan, highlighting the Japanese government’s
continued executions of mentally ill prisoners.

The death penalty is inappropriate for people with severe mental disorders. On
this day of two intersecting worldwide calls for change, we urge prevention of
violence, through effective and accessible mental health treatment, rather than

Renny Cushing, Executive Director
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
617 930 5196

Monday, July 6, 2009

Groundbreaking New Report from MVFHR/NAMI

For Immediate Release Contact: Susannah Sheffer

July 6, 2009 617-512-2010

Death Penalty and Mental Illness:

Families of Victims Speak out at National Convention;

“Double Tragedies” Report Released

San Francisco, CA—For the first time, families of murder victims have joined with families of persons with mental illness who have been executed to speak out against the death penalty.

Double Tragedies, a report being released today at a special session on the first day of the annual convention of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), calls the death penalty “inappropriate and unwarranted” for people with severe mental disorders and “a distraction from problems within the mental health system that contributed or even directly led to tragic violence.”

The report calls for treatment and prevention, not execution. It is available online at

The report, a joint project of NAMI and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR), is based on extensive interviews with 21 family members from 10 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

“Family opposition to the death penalty is grounded in personal tragedy,” said MVFHR executive director Renny Cushing. “In the public debate about the death penalty and how to respond in the aftermath of violent crime, these are the voices that need to be heard.”

“Most people with mental illness are not violent,” said NAMI executive director Mike Fitzpatrick. “When violent tragedies occur they are exceptional—because something has gone terribly wrong, usually in the mental health care system. Tragedies are compounded and all our families suffer.”

The report identifies an “intersection” of family concerns and makes four basic recommendations:

· Ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses.

· Reform the mental health care system to focus on treatment and prevention.

· Recognize the needs of families of murder victims through rights to information and participation in criminal or mental health proceedings.

· Families of executed persons also should be recognized as victims and given the assistance due to any victims of traumatic loss.

At least 100 people with mental illness have been put to death in the United States and hundreds more are awaiting execution.

Other resources:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Tonight (April 28, 2009) PBS will air a new episode of FRONTLINE: "The Released" (60 minutes),which documents what happens when offenders with mental illness leave prison. It is scheduled to air at 9:00 PM EDT; check your local listings.

Here's a message from the Senior Editor:

Five years ago, FRONTLINE filmmakers Karen O'Connor and Miri Navasky went deep inside the Ohio prison system to see how it was caring for thousands of mentally ill inmates - a growing problem for prisons nationwide in the wake of the shutdown of most of the old state psychiatric hospitals.

This Tuesday night, O'Connor and Navasky return to Ohio to pursue the next chapter in this disturbing story: What happens to mentally ill offenders when they've served their time and leave prison? The film is called "The Released," and it just may be the most gripping and profound hour of
television you watch all year.

Meet Lynn Moore, for example. He's a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of drug and alcohol abuse, who's been arrested more than twenty times.

O'Connor and Navasky find him in a homeless shelter after he's finished his fourth prison term. He battles his addictions, struggles to find work, and, ultimately gives in to the voices in his head. "It is not delusions," Moore tries to explain, after attacking a trailer-home where he believed evil figures were gathering one night. "It was the devil, Antichrist, bin Laden, Saddam." It's hard to watch without asking yourself an uncomfortable question: Would Lynn Moore have been better off
in prison, where he was compelled to stay on the medication that had helped him so dramatically?

O'Connor and Navasky also follow a number of other men, including Keith Williams, who's soon to be released from Northcoast, one of Ohio's last remaining state hospitals. "The good news is that Keith is getting better," says one of his nurses at Northcoast, which now provides only short-term crisis care. "The bad news is that because of this, he'll be sent back into the community in Toledo, and he'll be back here within three months - probably very psychotic, and hopefully not having hurt somebody."

Can a patchwork of homeless shelters, group homes, and short-term care facilities really provide for the severely mentally ill after prison? How do we reconcile our desire to release the mentally ill from prison and state hospitals when only the state may be able to provide the care and supervision they need? What does it mean for people trapped in their minds really to be free?

We hope you'll join us for the broadcast this Tuesday night. You can watch two excerpts from the film right now at our web site,

Ken Dornstein
Senior Editor

Friday, April 24, 2009

Expansion of Programs in Texas Counties to Divert Mentally Ill From Prisons

According to Marc A. Levin of the Houston Chronicle, several counties in Texas are expanding programs to divert mentally ill offenders from prisons, saving millions of tax payer dollars. The article ("Expand program to divert mentally ill from prisons", April 22nd 2009) outlines several programs being instituted by Bexar, El Paso, and Tarrant counties to reduce the amount of mentally ill recidivists and money spent on their incarceration. Here is the full text of the article:

Mental illness is a key factor in driving up correctional costs in Texas.

There are 42,556 offenders with a mental health diagnosis in prison, 55,276 on probation and 21,345 on parole. Additionally, some 170,000 mentally ill inmates are admitted into Texas county jails every year.
Mentally ill inmates cost more to house and they stay longer. They are also more likely to recidivate.
Fortunately, there are policies that can reduce both the recidivism and cost associated with the mentally ill in the criminal justice system.
First, counties can divert mentally ill offenders from jail through programs that protect public safety while saving taxpayer dollars.
Bexar County has established a successful three-pronged jail diversion program that can serve as a model for other Texas counties.
First, it employs specially trained law enforcement personnel called Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT). These teams are often able to defuse incidents involving the mentally ill without an arrest. Participants in CIT programs spent on average two more months out of jail than non-diverted individuals, resulting in significant jail cost savings.
While the largest Texas metropolitan police departments have CIT personnel, smaller police departments can create a CIT program through cooperatives with other nearby departments.
With Bexar County’s second prong, arrested offenders are screened for mental illness and, if not a threat to public safety, released on a mental health bond or to a treatment center. Screenings are conducted at the Crisis Care Center, a 24-hour facility that provides significantly quicker service at a lower cost than the emergency room.
Once stabilized, offenders are released on a mental health bond. Because the wait for a trial date can be as long as six months, outpatient monitoring significantly reduces the utilization of county jail space.
Finally, Bexar County diverts such misdemeanants from jail through an initiative called MANOS, which includes intensive case management that consists of outpatient medication management and counseling.
Of the 371 offenders admitted to the MANOS Program, only 6.2 percent were re-incarcerated. This compares to a re-incarceration rate of 67 percent for mentally ill offenders without the intensive case management services offered by the jail diversion program.
Savings from Bexar County’s jail diversion program are estimated at between $3.8 million and $5 million per year.
The state can also take steps to address the impact of mental illness on the criminal justice system. About 2,500 probationers and 800 parolees participate in a state-funded initiative involving intensive case management and a smaller case load with a specially trained officer.
The three-year re-incarceration rate is 15.1 percent for participating probationers and 16 percent for parolees. In contrast, there is a 52 percent re-incarceration rate for mentally ill probationers and parolees who do not receive treatment. Increasing the number of probationers and parolees in this program could more than pay for itself through lower recidivism.
Another way to address mental illness in the criminal justice system is through mental health courts. Several Texas counties — including Bexar, El Paso, Tarrant and Dallas — have established mental health courts in which a judge orders the defendant to obtain treatment and supervises his progress. Harris County’s criminal district judges voted in January to designate a full-time felony mental health court. The court is not yet in operation.
A RAND Institute study found significant cost savings from mental health courts due to lower jail utilization.
Finally, defendants who are mentally incompetent to stand trial can be diverted from a state hospital. In 2008, the state launched outpatient competency restoration pilot programs.
Taking Travis, Tarrant, Bexar and Dallas counties together, some 427 offenders are projected to be served in 2009. The total cost of these four programs is $2.16 million compared with the state hospital cost of $14.95 million based on an average cost of $35,000 per offender.
Accordingly, it makes sense to expand these pilot programs to additional sites.
Mentally ill offenders will always pose a substantial challenge in the criminal justice system.
But through initiatives like these, we can achieve our goals of enhanced public safety and reduced costs to taxpayers.

Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin.

Monday, April 13, 2009

More on Andre Thomas, Insanity Defense

The case of Texas death row inmate Andre Thomas has prompted a great deal of discussion about the insanity defense and about whether the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for offenders with severe mental illness.

Here's an article that appeared Sunday in the Dallas Morning News ("Case Fuels Texas Debate on Insanity Defense," April 12, 2009):

Everyone agrees Andre Thomas is crazy.

In 2004, he cut out the hearts of his wife and her two children and pocketed them. Before his murder trial, he plucked out his right eye. In January, while on death row, he ripped out his other eye and swallowed it.

Thus far, courts say Thomas is not insane.

His case is a classic example of the complexities of Texas' insanity defense law - and why some mental health advocates are pushing to change it. Several bills pending in the Texas Legislature would do just that.

With medication and treatment, Thomas eventually was found mentally competent to stand trial, because he could communicate and assist his attorney in his defense. At trial, he was found to be sane at the time of the crime because he knew the difference between right and wrong. And he may be found competent to be executed if he understands what execution means and why he is being killed.

Thomas is "clearly 'crazy,' " a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in a concurring denial of his appeal last month, "but he is also 'sane' under Texas law."

Death penalty opponent Maurie Levin, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, is appalled. "There is something just horribly wrong with a system that permits somebody as severely mentally ill as Andre Thomas to be found competent to stand trial or sane at the time of that crime," said Levin, who consulted with Thomas' defense attorney.

"We need to change the law," said Brian Shannon, a Texas Tech law professor, because a mentally ill person may know their conduct is wrong but be unable to fully comprehend the situation because the illness affects his "emotional state and thinking and reasoning ability."

Some defendants, such as Thomas, know killing is wrong but say God is telling them to do it.

Proposed legislation

Shannon supports bills pending in the Legislature to broaden the law, in all cases, not just capital cases, to say that a defendant must "appreciate," not just "know," the difference between right and wrong and that the wrong should be a moral one, not just legal.

Such changes, which have been proposed in past sessions, would bring Texas closer to the federal standard on insanity. Supporters are hopeful for passage this time, but for now, the Texas law is similar to that in other states.

"Texas is right within the norm," said Bruce Winick, who teaches law at the University of Miami, and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the medical school. "People aren't going to say, 'Oh, there goes Texas again.' "

Texas, like many states, narrowed the insanity defense in the 1980s amid outrage over John Hinckley's acquittal in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley has been confined to a mental hospital since 1982.

Shannon said Texas law also should change to inform jurors what happens to defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity. They do not "just walk free," he said.

A bill authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would allow jurors to be told that such defendants are sent to a mental hospital if acquitted. Long-term hospitalization is not guaranteed, but "even if someone gets well and is discharged, there's still oversight by the court," Shannon said.

Prosecutors oppose efforts to broaden the not guilty by reason of insanity defense.

"The people who are truly mentally ill, to the degree that their functioning is impaired, I think they are protected by the existing system," said Karla Hackett, who handled the Thomas appeal for Grayson County.

Thomas' attorneys had numerous opportunities to explain the effect of his mental illness to jurors. In the weeks before the murders, Thomas heard voices, behaved strangely and left mental facilities without treatment.

But jurors also heard how he planned the crime, intentionally avoided detection, then turned himself in to authorities. Prosecutors said drinking and drug use also contributed to his psychotic episodes.

"There's no doubt he has mental illness," Hackett said, but " why does he have mental illness?" Under Texas law if the illness is caused or worsened by "voluntary intoxication" such as drug or alcohol abuse, "you don't get to claim insanity."

Levin said the prosecution is implying that "if he hadn't been intoxicated, he wasn't crazy, he was faking. I think Andre's actions since the crime - including gouging out his eye pretrial and taking out a remaining eye three months ago - have proven them wrong."

Jurors weigh in

Jurors heard experts from both sides, but didn't buy the argument that Thomas' mental illness meant he shouldn't be held criminally accountable, Hackett said.

Thomas' appellate attorneys, who declined to comment, claim his trial counsel was ineffective. Appellate courts have disagreed and deferred to the jury's judgment.

"What angers people is when they don't know the whole case," Hackett said. "It's, 'Oh, my gosh, he's got no eyeball, I can't believe they're doing this, he must be crazy.' Well, don't say that until you've been there, until you've sat in the jury box for six weeks."

Hackett said changing the wording of the law would "open up a whole new area of litigation. Now we're going to argue, what does the word appreciate mean? Whose morals?"

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said the current law "strikes the appropriate balance."

Informing jurors about what happens if the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity would make the process less objective, Bradley said. He thinks jurors might speculate about what could happen and be "frightened into convicting the defendant" if they understood the limits of judicial oversight when a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity.

High court ruling?

Winick, the University of Miami instructor, expects the U.S. Supreme Court eventually to weigh in on the issue. So far, the court has ruled only that an inmate must be competent to be executed. Last summer the high court also ruled a mentally ill defendant cannot represent himself in court.

But the court has not ruled on whether an inmate may be forcibly medicated to render him competent - and therefore eligible for execution. That issue may be ripe for the Supreme Court to decide.

Winick thinks the court ultimately may have to rule whether it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on someone who is sane but mentally ill. That issue is a "natural extension," he said, of the court's decisions prohibiting execution for the mentally retarded and juveniles because they have less ability to understand the consequences of their crimes.

Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it probably would be years before the issue reaches the court. The decisions regarding mental retardation and juveniles relied heavily on the fact that more than half of the states had abolished the death penalty for those individuals. So far, only a handful of states are even considering a
ban on executing the mentally ill. Texas is not among them.

- - - - -

Under current state law, mentally ill defendants undergo tests of mental competence at several stages:

1. Before trial: Defendants must be able to understand the trial process and be able to communicate with their attorney and understand the proceedings. A judge may make the determination at an examining trial where the defendant is represented by an attorney and may present evidence from experts. The defendant may request a jury decision.

2. At the time of the crime: If the defendant claims at trial to be not guilty by reason of insanity, he must prove he did not know his conduct was wrong while committing the crime. As in any criminal trial, he may request a judge or a jury.

3. At the time of execution: If the case results in a death penalty, an inmate cannot be executed if he does not understand what it means to be executed and why he is being put to death. If a claim of incompetence is made, a judge must hold a hearing to determine competency. Lower courts differ on whether an inmate may be forcibly medicated to achieve competency, which makes him
eligible for execution. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on forcible medication.

- - - - -

Editor's Note: A district judge has ordered the forced medication of Texas death row inmate Steven Staley. Staley suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia and has been hospitalized up to 19 times while on death row. He often has refused to take his medication because he thinks he is being poisoned.

In September 2007, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear Staley's appeal, ruling that the trial court's order was not "an appealable order" and that it would not consider overturning it.

More information on his case is available here and here.