Death Penalty and Mental Illness

May 18, 2017

“He did a terrible thing, but he was sick. Where is the compassion? Is this the best our society can do?”

– Yvonne Panetti, mother of Scott Panetti, mentally ill man on death row in Texas
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 6, 2003)

The execution of those with mental illness or “the insane” is clearly prohibited by international law. Virtually every country in the world prohibits the execution of people with mental illness.

In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson read a newspaper story about two Portuguese students who were jailed for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.

Appalled by this injustice, he published an appeal titled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer newspaper urging readers to write letters on behalf of people around the world imprisoned because they exercised their human right.

The response was enormous, and the letter was re-printed all over the world – leading thousands of people to write letters to government leaders. These groups of letter-writers in different countries would form the backbone of the organization that became Amnesty International.

In 1963, Ukrainian Archbishop Josyf Slipyi in Siberia became the first prisoner freed as the result of an Amnesty International campaign. Since then, tens of thousands of prisoners have been released thanks to the letters and actions of our members.

Amnesty International expanded its activities to include a campaign against torture in 1972, and worked for the passage of the UN Convention Against Torture in 1984. Our work on this issue remains a key component of our platform, most recently in advocating for the release of the U.S. Senate report on torture of detainees in CIA custody

In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In its presentation speech, the Nobel committee said “the defense of human dignity against torture, violence, and degradation constitutes a very real contribution to the peace of this world.”

Ending the death penalty became another key campaign for Amnesty International in 1980, when only nine countries had abolished capital punishment. Today, there are 140. In the United States, public support for the death penalty has declined in recent years, and Amnesty International continues to work at the state and federal level to push to end it once and for all.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Amnesty International helped spark a new generation of human rights activist through major events in popular culture and music, including The Secret Policeman’s Ball, the Conspiracy of Hope Tour, and the Human Rights Now! Tour.

Amnesty International expanded its mission in the 1990s and early 2000s to include supporting reproductive freedom, holding corporations responsible for human rights violations, and preserving human rights in national security policies in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The campaigns to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and end mass surveillance of the population continue to be major initiatives.

In recent years, Amnesty International has focused on protecting human rights in the global refugee crisis. In the United States, we’ve been on the ground in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other communities affected by police-related violence, and we published a groundbreaking report calling for reform of laws governing the use of lethal force by police. That report has helped spark local, state, and federal reforms in the United States.

In 2017, we mobilized activists across the United States and around the world to hold newly elected President Donald Trump’s administration accountable for violating human rights, and we are preparing to launch a major global campaign to protect human rights defenders, the activists who are often targeted because they work on the front lines to protect everyone’s human rights.

The execution of the insane – someone who does not understand the reason for, or the reality of, his or her punishment – violates the U.S. Constitution (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986). The Ford decision left the determination of sanity up to each state. Constitutional protections for those with other forms of mental illness are minimal, however, and dozens of prisoners have been executed despite suffering from serious mental illness. The National Association of Mental Health has estimated that five to ten percent of those on death row have serious mental illness.


  • Askari Abdullah Muhammad was executed in Florida on January 7, 2014 for a murder committed in prison in 1980. He had a long history of serious mental illness, including a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
  • James Colburn had an extensive history of paranoid schizophrenia when he was arrested for murder. During his 1995 trial, Mr. Colburn received injections of Haldol, an anti-psychotic drug that can have a powerful sedative effect. A 1997 post-conviction assessment questioned Mr. Colburn’s competency to stand trial at that time, finding he had been “seriously sedated during the time of his trial.” He was executed March 26, 2003.
  • On January 6, 2004, the State of Arkansas executed Charles Singleton, who was said to be “seriously deranged without treatment” and “arguably incompetent with treatment.” It was only during an episode of “drug-induced sanity” that the state scheduled his execution.
  • On May 18, 2004, Kelsey Patterson was executed in Texas although he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1981 and did not possess rational understanding at his trial.

The State of Texas ranks 46th out of the 50 U.S. states in terms of the amount of money spent per capita in the treatment of the mentally ill, including funds for mental health services in jails and prisons (News 8 Austin, April 21, 2003). It spends an average of $2.3 million to try a death penalty case. (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992).
Read the full report: USA:The execution of mentally ill offenders