Executing the Mentally Ill

Why did David Kaczynski become a leader of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty? Kaczynski suspected his brother Ted was the Unabomber, and he cooperated with the FBI to secure Ted's capture, fearing that if he didn't, his brother would kill again. Still, David thought the death penalty would never be imposed upon a man so mentally ill as his brother.

Ted eventually made a deal to avoid death (he's now serving a life sentence without parole), but even the possibility that the government might execute a severely mentally ill defendant was enough to turn David against the death penalty. He talked to MSNBC about the experience. The lessons he teaches deserve to be well learned.

I kind of thought once some of the investigators had said, 'We know that you're brother's mentally ill,' I thought that took the death penalty off the table. I honestly didn't realize that, you know, our system does execute the mentally ill. There's tremendous disconnect between what the law calls insanity and what medicine calls mental illness. And the end result is that sometimes we're executing people who have to be medicated to get them to the point where they're competent to be executed.

But the end result is that we're doing a serious, serious injustice. Locking up people in jails who really need to be in mental institutions. And in some cases, actually executing people who are clearly delusional at the time of their crimes...

If there's something to be learned out of it, I think it's that understanding can go so far in terms of healing people who have been through trauma. And also in terms of what society needs to do to recognize the humanity of people who are mentally ill and make a commitment to providing them with effective treatments and treating them with compassion. I've met with so many other families. When I give talks around the country, I can't tell you how many times-- hardly ever does a talk go by when I'm not approached by someone who comes up to me and says, 'You know David, my sister or my brother or my mother or my son has a mental illness. So, I felt such compassion when I heard your story because, believe me, I can identify with it. I know what you're struggle has been like.'...

"I think the answer for me, I think the answer for many people who've been through tragedies involving violence is to try to create some form of constructive response. You know, not to wallow in bitterness. But to say, you know, 'Look, we can learn something by this. We all have to be our brother's keepers, our sister's keepers. We have to care about each other.' The lines of compassion are not just drawn narrowly around the family. They have to be drawn around the community. We have to learn as human beings when bad things happen to find the better parts of ourselves and to take away something from those experiences that is ennobling not diminishing."

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    Mentally ill? (1.00 / 1) (#2)
    by jarober on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 03:48:13 PM EST
    By calling him "ill" you simply deny the fact that he was engaged in willfully evil acts.  By the kind of logic you engage in above, Hitler and Stalin could be excused their acts on the grounds of mental illness as well.  

    are you claiming (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jen M on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 04:45:12 PM EST
    insane people never ever ever ever do anything wrong?

    Cause thats what it sounds like.


    Insanity... (1.00 / 1) (#4)
    by jarober on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 04:52:25 PM EST
    Insanity isn't well understood, at all.  IMHO, all we can really do is judge the acts of people and not worry that much about their motivations. At the end of the day, the people Kaczynski attacked got hurt, without regard to his motivations.  TL wants to use mental illness as another way to attack the death penalty - I'd rather separate the two completely.  To the victims, the perpetrators motivation just isn't terribly relevant.

    were not talking motivation (none / 0) (#5)
    by Jen M on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 05:19:22 PM EST
    we are talking about mental illness. People who are crazy, nuts, whacko, incapable of behaving or thinking in a sane manner.  It does make a difference.

    Do you punish a child for throwing up dinner when she has the flu? Would you lecture a boy on responsibility when he doesn't play for his team even though he has a broken leg?

    People don't CHOOSE to be insane, it is illness.


    Just like Global Warming... (none / 0) (#9)
    by Dadler on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 10:45:26 PM EST
    ...isn't well understood either, right?

    We understand more about mental illness that we do about what causes chronic back pain.


    Not Sure (none / 0) (#1)
    by roger on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 03:34:51 PM EST
    Didnt the Feds promise that they would not seek the DP if Kaczynski helped catch his brother, and then go back on their word? I seem to recall reading something about it around the time of capture.

    Mentally ill people don't perceive the world.... (none / 0) (#6)
    by Nowonmai on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 05:41:35 PM EST
    As 'normal' people do.

    Motivation plays no part. Thought processes aren't the same. What you perceive as 'knowingly committing wrongful acts' would be perfectly correct behavior to someone who is mentally ill. They can't help it, it's an illness.

    Executing someone who is mentally ill should be repugnant to any 'sane' thinking person. To punish someone for being ill is frightening, to say the least.

    If they're mentally ill... (none / 0) (#7)
    by Gabriel Malor on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 06:18:08 PM EST
    If a person is mentally ill, such that his illness causes his violent or otherwise illegal acts, he needs to be removed from society. That means trial  seeking imprisonment or pre-trial confinement in an institution for the mentally ill.

    The problem is, indefinite confinement seems unjust, especially when the mental illness can be treated. And that creates a whole new problem. Once a person is treated, do we just release them back into society or seek to prosecute them for the acts which originally led to their confinement?

    On the one hand, many of the mentally ill may not be culpable for their crimes. This becomes more complicated, however, when we consider the many different types of mental illness. On the other hand, letting the treatable mentally ill go unprosecuted seems saying that some victims of crime will go unvindicated (if you subscribe to retributivism) or that the harm done to the victims is less than the harm done by placing the treatable mentally ill in the normal justice system (if you're a utilitarian kind of guy).

    French anti death penalty film (none / 0) (#8)
    by JSN on Fri Dec 29, 2006 at 07:14:42 PM EST
    Many years ago there was a French film which translated to "We are all murders". The antihero was feeble minded and was used by the resistance during the war as an assassin because if he was caught he didn't know anything that could help the Germans and who the resistance leaders cynically thought was no loss in any case.

    After the war he continued to murder people and was quickly caught and sentenced to death. At the time the French execution process was incredibly cruel and the film helped end the use of the death penalty in France.

    One of the issues was that the anti-hero was not competent to assist with his own defense but some of the other persons on death row were mentally ill so both mental illness and competence were dealt with in the film. The film had a great deal of influenced on my views on the death penalty.

    In a nutshell I don't support the death penalty under any circumstances even though I have to admit that in some cases we would be better off if the murderer was dead.


    commenting on issues you know nothing about (none / 0) (#10)
    by ltgesq on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 12:52:39 AM EST
    I find it remarkable reading the points of view of non lawyers who have never dealt with the mentally ill spewing opinions that have no basis in fact.

    The fact is that since hinkley was acquitted of trying to kill reagan, it has become nearly impossible to have a client declared not guilty by reason of insanity.  Guilty but mentally ill means they go to prison and are supposed to be treated.   In fact when they have completed thier sentence they get might treatment.   Prisons will have the inmate rediagnosed by the facility medical doctor who always changes his medications to the cheapest medicine available-- whether it is appropriate or not.  In the meantime the prisons are filled to capacity with the mentally ill that used to be housed in actual mental hospitals.

    Just this week i read a report where a dr. found my client competent to stand trial, yet the client was hearing voices, seeing halucinations, and could not finish the test because of bursting into laughter at inappropriate times.  He (the client) believes an implant is embedded in his head to monitor the psychdelic abilities he has.  But since he knows "the judge decides, the prosecutor puts you in prison, and the defense attorney helps you", he is competent.

    Its a joke.   We would find these people incompetent to manage any other part of thier lives -- from managing finances to raising children.  Yet, in the most important circumstance of your life -- freedom from prison-- the standard is so low my airedale terrier could qualify as competent by some doctors.

    You are correct most are found to be competent (none / 0) (#12)
    by JSN on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 09:27:46 AM EST
    to stand trial.  One wonders if the prison shrink would be fired if they found that more were incompetent. You are also correct about their changing the prescription or eliminating the treatment. We had a case where the prison shrink was fired (after a two year battle) because they did that.

    Well, ya know, many of us may not be... (none / 0) (#14)
    by Bill Arnett on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 02:54:12 PM EST
    ...completely knowledgeable, absolutely infallible, and the one single person qualified to discuss this issue, which seems to be your contention when you arrogate yourself sufficiently to say:

    I find it remarkable reading the points of view of non lawyers who have never dealt with the mentally ill spewing opinions that have no basis in fact.

    Believe it or not there are many, many non-lawyers who come here that are every bit as entitled to state their opinion on this matter whether it conforms to your "mine-is-the-one-and-only-valid-opinion-because I-am-a-lawyer" theme or not.

    Some of us even believe -oh! The Horror! - that we are entitled to not only state an opinion, but to do so without first subjecting that opinion to an approval process, filtering, or having it subject to review and grading through your very narrow-minded perception and argument that non-lawyers "spew" their opinion, while only lawyers are intelligent enough to grasp the issues at stake here.

    One of the "facts" that somehow you failed to state, is that in most civilized countries, not America, they do not execute the mentally ill. The fact that America does is an abomination.

    And that's my "spewed opinion," and I'm stickin' to it, even without an Esq. after my name (that's so we won't mistake you for a mere mortal, right? ;>))

    Most of us here have nothing against attorneys; some of my best friends are attorneys - but most of recognize as well that no one is perfect and that ALL of us have to right to state our opinion.

    Peace. And the problem you cite is a very bad problem that cries out for more fair and humane for those that happen to be mentally ill.


    "more fair and humane TREATMENT... (none / 0) (#15)
    by Bill Arnett on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 02:58:25 PM EST
    ...and I am still my own worst proofreader.

    Appeal to Authority (none / 0) (#11)
    by jarober on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 05:49:38 AM EST
    "I find it remarkable reading the points of view of non lawyers who have never dealt with the mentally ill spewing opinions that have no basis in fact."

    Fine.  Let's leave abortion to doctors, military action to the military (etc)...

    I don't deny that there are mentally ill people.  What I do deny is that we have a decent understanding of mental illness, how to treat it well, or even how to properly diagnose it.  Which leaves us with dealing with acts rather than with motivations.

    not guilty by reason of insanity (none / 0) (#13)
    by diogenes on Sat Dec 30, 2006 at 02:45:55 PM EST
    Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity not so long ago; it took Texas an appeal to do it but even that state somehow managed to do the right thing.
    If you were sane when you did the crime then you can take the sentence that a sane person gets for the crime.
    If Ted Kaczynski knew what he was doing was illegal and took steps to avoid detection, and if he wasn't being "compelled" to send the bombs by irrestible command hallucinations or the like, then he was guilty as charged.