To Die For: Executing The Mentally Ill In America


The way federal prosecutors are preparing charges against alleged Arizona killer Jared Loughner leaves little doubt that we soon will be witnessing the criminal justice system again turned on its head. Expect the public to be whipped into a state of blood-lust frenzy so that an obviously mentally ill individual can be subjected to the death penalty.

The recently surfaced photos of Loughner — supposedly posing in a red thong while aiming a gun at his own genitals — should be enough to stop this train from ever leaving the station (never mind the obviously demented smile on his face in his booking photo), but, in America one never knows.

One of the persistent horror stories concerning the application of the death penalty to mentally defective offenders is the one about how then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, rushed back to the state to sign the death warrant of a boy who, when served his last meal an hour before his execution, asked his warders “can I save my pie for tomorrow?”

As Roberto Hugh Potter, Director of Research in the University of Central Florida's Department of Criminal Justice, says: “you can’t execute someone who doesn’t understand they’re being executed.”

States often spend hundreds of thousands of dollars treating individual perpetrators, not to make them well because it's the humane thing to do, but to make them mentally stable enough (in the legal sense) to be put on trial so they can be put to death. Which begs the question … how can the State, in good conscience, execute someone who, even if they are sane at the time of trial … was insane at the time he or she committed the crime?

Nonetheless, in the U.S. we often succeed in executing the mentally unbalanced, as the State of Ohio is set to do in the case of Frank Spisak, the self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who killed three people at Cleveland State University in 1982. While his lawyers argue that Spisak is bipolar and severely mentally ill, the incoming Republican governor, John Kasich, recently signaled he has no intention of stopping the execution.

Decisions in mental illness cases often come down to dueling psychiatric teams — one hired by the prosecution, the other hired by the defense. Both make a laughingstock of their profession as they duke it out in court, twisting and turning the truth in an attempt to fit the desires of whichever client hired them. It oftentimes appears these so-called “experts” would just as vigorously argue the opposing point of view if they were in the pay of the other side. No wonder courts and the public are skeptical of anything that comes out of the mouths of these hired guns.

In Spisak's case there is little doubt as to his mental state. He stated in open court that he was a follower of Adolph Hitler and was in a war for the survival of the Aryan people. He purposely targeted black victims in an effort to start a race war in Cleveland. He also gave the raised, stiff-armed Nazi salute to the judge while sporting a Hitler mustache. He also called himself “Frances Anne Spisak,” and came to court wearing a red dress and a pair of to-die-for, black patent-leather pumps with six-inch stiletto heels.

In 2000, the United Nations 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.” Additionally there are other international laws against imposing this ultimate punishment on the mentally ill.

However, U.S. courts routinely try to ignore these laws when the dictates of politics demand blood.

Such was the case with Timothy Halton, Jr., the 27-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who killed Cleveland Heights police officer Jason West in 2007. His mother, Jeannette Halton-Tiggs, who had done everything within her power to prevent such a tragedy from occurring, provided his lawyers and the court with ample documentation that her son was first diagnosed at age eight, and had been committed to psychiatric hospitals for treatment on over a dozen prior occasions. Nonetheless prosecutors indicted him and were set to ask for the death penalty. Fortunately his lawyers were able to get his life spared, but he still received an unjust life sentence.

In an Orwellian sense, not all lives are of equal value in America. If the victim is a police officer, such as Jason West, or a public official, such as Cong. Gabrielle Giffords, the rules can dramatically and drastically change. And while more severe penalties are perhaps appropriate for attacks on public servants, such enhanced logic should not apply when the perpetrator is mentally ill.

Attempts to subject the mentally ill to the death penalty not only make a mockery of our criminal justice system, but impede the development of treatment programs for this population. If the government — by seeking the death penalty — is tacitly maintaining that mentally ill individuals are responsible for their actions, then the public response will be “why should we spend tax dollars providing services in an attempt to help cure them?”

Additionally, the amount of public monies that are going to have to be expended on the attempt to execute someone as mentally ill as Jared Loughner will be astronomical.

Lawyers just love making their reputations by handling high profile cases like this one, even if a conviction without death penalty specifications is a slam dunk. The only way to make it contentious, to drag it out for months — if not years — and in the process collect more fees and get more TV face time, is to speciously put the death penalty on the table.

These funds could be better used to provide treatment to prevent further tragedies, rather than in convoluted attempts to punish mentally ill individuals. After the crime is committed, mental health professionals stabilize incompetent perpetrators with medication so they can be declared “sane.” Once they are found to be “sane” they are put on trial for capital murder, and prosecutors attempt to convince a jury to find them guilty because they are now “sane” and competent to stand trial. This expensive charade is played out so that persons, who were mentally ill at the time, can be executed … for perpetrating “crimes” they are usually too sick to even remember committing.

Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander who serves as the executive director of Neighborhood Solutions, Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on myriad issues of importance to the urban community. A published author, he served as editor at a number of Cleveland weeklies before semi-retiring and changing over to Internet journalism in 2005. His column can currently be seen weekly on and The Cleveland Leader. He also occasionally contributes to The Daily Beast. Frazier is the co-publisher of Reentry Advocate, a magazine that currently goes into all Ohio prisons, select prisons in the State of Michigan, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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