Double Tragedies

July 7, 2009

Letter from Kelsey Patterson to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (© Private)
Letter from Kelsey Patterson to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (© Private)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) released a report yesterday entitled Double Tragedies: Victims Speak Out Against the Death Penalty For People with Severe Mental Illness. These two groups, among the nation’s pre-eminent mental health and victims’ rights organizations,  have formed a unique partnership to speak out against the death penalty for people suffering from serious mentally illness.  The report includes interviews with the families of persons with mental illness who were executed, as well as the families of the victims of these terrible crimes. The consensus of the two groups is clear: executing mentally ill prisoners is inhumane, unsatisfying for victims’ families, and is an impediment to adopting positive mental health policies that could have prevented these crimes.

The report contains accounts from several families, detailing their thoughts, feelings, and observations at various stages of the process.  In one case, a woman named Tina Duroy tells the story of her brother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia but unable to get consistent treatment for his illness – “There was no one we could turn to when we were trying to get help …” – he committed murder and was sentenced to death and ultimately executed.

In another case, Pat Webdale tells of how her daughter was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York by a man who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia ten years earlier. While Pat was obviously devastated by her daughter’s death, she felt that the larger injustice was that someone who had previously demonstrated that he was severely mentally ill and dangerous to society had not been productively treated in any way

Double Tragedies contains many stories like these. It is necessarily emotional and is, at times, a very moving take on the problem. NAMI and MVFHR’s report is a good follow-up to the report released by Amnesty International, USA: The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders, which takes a more detail-oriented look at the death penalty and mental illness.

The appendices of NAMI’s report contain four main recommendations: prohibiting the death penalty for persons with severe mental illness, focusing on treatment in the mental health system, recognizing the victims’ needs, and recognizing the families of the executed as victims. All of these goals, especially the last one, seek to challenge the way crimes perpetrated by mentally ill offenders are currently viewed by the public and by the justice system. By first educating ourselves and others about the problems involved, and then by reforming our attitudes and the attitudes of society in general, we can come to a more productive way of seeking justice for these cases.