Class 12: Mental Health Issues

Many capital defendants suffer from serious mental disorders that present a number of legal issues – whether one was “sane” at the time of the crime, whether a defendant has sufficient understanding of court proceedings and the ability to cooperate with a lawyer so as to be “competent” for trial, whether a defendant is capable of making a decision to enter a guilty plea or give up further appeals even if it means he will be executed, and, finally, whether a person understands the relationship between his execution and the crime committed so that he is “competent” to be executed. We consider some of the difficult questions courts face in making factual determinations of a defendant’s mental state. We also look at the separate issue of competency for execution. No one can be executed unless he or she understand the nature of the penalty and its relationship to the crime committed (i.e., that the execution is punishment for the crime), yet the mental health of some who have been sentenced to death deteriorates significantly by the time their execution approaches. We will look at how courts decide whether someone is “competent” to be executed and we will see that sometimes those whose mental awareness is highly questionable are nevertheless put to death.

A. Competency for Trial

This segment examines each of these issues – the legal definitions set by the Supreme Court or legislatures, the evidence considered in deciding them, whether defendants may be forcibly medicated to make them competent for trial, and whether a “next friend” can represent the interests of a mentally ill person who wants to give up further appeals and be executed.


Competency for Trial (PDF), including:

    • Introduction
      • Institutionalization and De-institutionalization of the Mentally Ill
      • Mentally Ill People in the Criminal Courts
      • Legal Issues Which May be Presented
      • Treatment of the Mentally Ill in Prison
    • Competency for Trial
      • Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960)
      • Pate v. Robinson, 383 U.S. 375 (1966), and  Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162 (1975)
      • Waiver of the rights to counsel and trial
      • Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389 (1993)
      • Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164 (2008)
      • Issues Regarding Competency for Trial: Whether defendants have a sufficient understanding of the legal proceedings and are able to communicate with their lawyers in order to participate in the proceedings.
      • Burden of proof, commitment of incompetent defendants to mental institutions, and forced administration of anti-psychotic drugs – Riggins v. Nevada, 504 U.S. 127 (1992), Sell v. United States, 539 U.S. 166 (2003)
    • Sanity and Mitigation
      • Bigby v. State, 892 S.W.2d 864 (Tex. Cr. App. 1994)
      • Bigby v. Dretke, 402 F.3d 551 (5th Cir. 2005)
Recommended Reading:


B. Competency to be Executed

The mental health of someone who has been sentenced to death may deteriorate significantly by the time for execution. This segment examines the constitutional prohibition of the execution of a person who does not understands the nature of the penalty and its relationship to the crime committed (i.e., that the execution is punishment for the crime).


Competency to be Executed (PDF), including:

    • Competency for Federal Habeas Corpus Proceedings
      • Note on Ryan v. Gonzalez, 133 S.Ct. 696 (2013)
    • Competency to Waive Post-Conviction Review
      • Rees v. Peyton, 384 U.S. 312 (1966)
      • Rees After the Court’s Decision
      • Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149 (1990)
      • Rumbaugh v. Procunier, 753 F.2d 395 (5th Cir. 1985)
    • Competency to be Executed
      • Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986)
      • Jurisdiction to Consider Ford Claims in Federal Habeas Proceedings
      • Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007)
      • Developments in Panetti After the Decision
      • Illustrative Case: State of Alabama v. Varnell Weeks, Excerpts from hearings on April 7 and 14, 1995 in the Circuit Court of Macon County, Alabama
      • Forced Medication to Restore Competency
Recommended Reading:


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