NEW YORK – Christopher Johnson’s execution by the State of Alabama creates serious doubts about the justice of a measure that is widely criticized by human rights advocates throughout the world. According to the group Equal Justice Initiative, the Alabama Supreme Court planned the execution without even engaging in a meaningful review of the case.
Christopher Johnson was convicted of killing his son in 2005. Johnson’s attorneys claimed that he wasn’t guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. However, during the trial, Johnson asked the trial judge for permission to represent himself. Despite ample evidence that Johnson had a long history of mental illness, the judge allowed him to do so. Although during his detention Johnson showed destructive behavior associated with mental illness, the trial judge sentenced Johnson to death. He was executed on Oct. 21, 2011.
Johnson’s case had several mitigating circumstances. He was sexually molested by an uncle from age 7 to 12; he started taking drugs at 16; and throughout his childhood he was placed in programs for children with severe behavioral problems.
Death sentences imposed without consideration for mitigating circumstances are inherently unreliable, the U.S. Supreme Court has held.
An even more egregious case is the execution of the mentally retarded. Such was the case with Milton Mathis, 32. Despite a considerable body of evidence showing that Mathis was clearly retarded, the Supreme Court denied his appeal for clemency and he was executed in Texas last June 21. He became the 470th individual put to death in Texas in modern times.
According to Amnesty International, executing the mentally ill — those who don’t understand the reasons for their punishment — violates the U.S. Constitution. In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the common law rule that the “insane” cannot be executed.
In a 1986 opinion, Justice Thurgood Marshall reasoned that executing them didn’t serve any punitive goals and that Florida’s procedures for determining competency to stand trial were inadequate. After he was re-evaluated, Alvin Bernard Ford was transferred to Florida State Hospital for treatment and found to be incompetent to be executed.
There is widespread international criticism of the death penalty. Carlos Duguech, director of the radio program Peace in the World in Argentina, told me, “The death penalty is the failure of the social order, is the worst scourge that contaminates society.”
In reference to minors and the mentally ill, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions said, “Governments that continue to use the death penalty with respect to minors and the mentally ill are particularly called upon to bring their domestic legislation into conformity with international legal standards.”
In 2000, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights urged all states that maintain the death penalty “not to impose it on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder; not to execute any such person.”
Since 1983, over 60 people with mental illness or retardation have been executed in the United States. A striking case was that of Vietnam War veteran and Manny Babbitt. Because of his heroism as a marine during the war, he had been awarded a Purple Heart. After returning from Vietnam, Babbitt’s life revolved around drugs, medications and mental institutions. He also suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. He screamed for help, saying, “I am going to hurt somebody.”
During what seemed to be a burglary attempt in Sacramento, Calif., in 1980, he struck a 78-year-old woman in the head and she died of a heart attack. The details of his crime seem to indicate that he suffered a flashback to actions during the war. He wrapped his victim in a blanket and tagged her as if she were a captive soldier on the battlefield. Manny’s brother turned him into the police, and was promised counseling and support for his brother.
Instead, he was tried by an all-white jury (Manny Babbitt was black) and was executed on May 4, 1999. After he was executed for his crime, he received a funeral with military honors.
The American Bar Association passed a 2006 resolution calling for the exemption of those with serious mental illness from imposition and execution of the death penalty. The National Association of Mental Health estimates that 5 to 10 percent of those on death row have serious mental illness.
One of those in death row is Scott Panetti, convicted for the murder of his parents-in-law Joe and Amanda Alvarado on Sept. 8, 1992, in Texas. He was sentenced to death in 1995, despite a long history of mental illness. He was hospitalized, both voluntarily and involuntarily, for mental illness 14 times before his arrest for capital murder in 1992.
After his conviction, Sonia Alvarado, Panetti’s former wife and daughter of the victims filed a petition stating that he should have never been tried for his crimes, since he was suffering from paranoid delusions at the time of the killings. Panetti’s mother said: “He did a terrible thing, but he was sick. Where is the compassion?
“Is this the best our society can do?”
Cesar Chelala, M.D., is co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.