Death Penalty and Mental Illness


Last updated on June 26, 2023

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.


UN Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty

“…nor shall the death sentence be carried out… on persons who have become insane.”


UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions

Governments that continue to use the death penalty “with respect to minors and the mentally ill are particularly called upon to bring their domestic legislation into conformity with international legal standards.”


UN Commission on Human Rights

Urges 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.”


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