OPED: Who does America execute? A lot of people with mental illness, brain traumas

Scott Martelle
Los Angeles Times

It’s been apparent for years that the American death penalty system is so deeply and irredeemably flawed that it should not be used to determine whether someone should die for a crime. It’s prone to manipulation by prosecutors and police, witnesses get details wrong (intentionally and not), and the penalty is applied disproportionately on minorities and the poor.

But a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center also argues that the death penalty is also disproportionately applied on people with mental illness and brain traumas.

The organization, which released its annual year-end overview early Friday morning, reports that of 25 executions in 2018 — a near-record low for the modern era — at least 11 of the condemned displayed “significant evidence of mental illness.” Further, at least nine showed “evidence of brain injury, developmental brain damage, or an IQ in the intellectually disabled range” and at least 11 had suffered “chronic serious childhood trauma, neglect, and/or abuse.” Many of the executed fell into more than one category.

Of the 25 executed men, six — or about 25 percent — were age 21 or younger when they committed the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. There is growing consensus among experts that the rational part of the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25 or so.

So we’re killing people who were immature at the time of their crimes, or who were mentally ill at the time of their execution (and often at the time of the crime), or who had learning and other cognitive disabilities.

Yes, murder is a horrific crime, resonating far beyond the victim. It is deserving of harsh punishment. But do the mentally ill deserve to be executed for acts they may not have understood? Or whose rational culpability is weighted by cognitive disabilities? And who were at a disadvantage in helping their attorneys defend them?

Death rows are packed with people whose illnesses and disabilities were significant factors in their crimes. The Supreme Court has ruled that the insane and the developmentally disabled are ineligible for the death penalty, but determining the threshold can be subjective. And is someone more culpable if he kills on his 18th birthday than if he committed the crime the night before?

Here in California, Ronnie McPeters, who shot and killed a woman at a Fresno fast-food drive-through in 1984, told a psychiatrist that he was filming a commercial. After his conviction and removal to death row at San Quentin, his mental state deteriorated further to the point where he hoards his own feces, talks to a wife and children who do not exist, and hears imaginary voices of his victim’s relatives.

More:OPED: Will death of girl finally put an end to our immigration gulag?

More:OPED: The president’s voter fraud commission should have gone hunting in Trump country

A federal judge ruled in 2007 that McPeters was too mentally ill to be executed, and the state attorney general’s office has joined with McPeters’ lawyers to ask the state Supreme Court to commute his sentence to life in prison because it would be unconstitutional to kill him.

Yet because of court backlogs, McPeters still sits on death row along with more than two dozen other condemned inmates who, like him, are probably too mentally ill to be executed. One, Justin Helzer, put his own eyes out with a pen trying to drive it into his brain. A third, Oscar Gates, thinks he’s in prison because the state wants to steal his inheritance from Howard Hughes and “that prison medical staff are trying to poison him with radioactive cobalt, or that Howard Hughes told him how to cure AIDS with yellow chili peppers,” according to court documents.

At least here in California federal courts continue to bar executions, and even with the passage of Proposition 66 and a new (and disputed) single-drug lethal injection protocol, it doesn’t seem that executions will resume soon – if for no other reason than that state will have trouble obtaining the execution drugs even if the courts allow it fire back up “the machinery of death,” as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun so eloquently phrased it.

Capital punishment is an immoral practice that the nation has proved time and again that it can’t get right, from exonerations (four from California’s death row) to botched executions, and at its heart is little more than official vengeance. It needs to end.