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Alternatives for the Death Penalty for Mentally Challenged

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Abstract

The capital punishment (death penalty) for mentally challenged is discussed in this research paper. The main accent was made on the geographical extension of death penalty and its historical background. Furthermore, in this research paper the definition of the corporal punishment for mentally retarded people is evaluated by American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) concerning its three main historical stages in 1983, 1992 and 2000. Moreover, there is a comprehend analysis of the factors that indicate that a person is suffering from mental disability. The faults of the legal system concerning adoption of death penalty for mentally ill people are mentioned in order to prevent this violence of human rights in future. Additionally, the alternatives for death penalty are deeply investigated with the aim to show the most humanistic modern approaches that can be applicable to perform an appropriate punishment for mentally challenged people. The drawbacks of corporal punishment are analyzed including its violence that contradicts human rights, and probability to impose a capital punishment upon the innocent. Finally, there is a scientific analysis of the current legal system, its main laws, and doctrines that were adopted in order to protect mentally disabled people. All in all, mental retardation is considered to be the most barbarous way of punishing people, while the human right to live is not taken into consideration.

Keywords: mental retardation, mentally challenged, corporal punishment, life imprisonment, the AAMR.

Alternatives for the Death Penalty for Mentally Challenged

Without any doubt, modern American legal system has faced a big problem, commonly known as application of the corporal punishment for mentally disabled people. The death penalty (or capital punishment) is referred to be a legal process whereby the state puts a person to the death as a punishment for his/ her crime. Moreover, the death penalty is considered to be the most severe form of corporal punishment that requires the law officers to kill (to end the life) the convinced person who committed an illegal act (Jacobs, Landes & Siegel, 1996). However, the American Mental Health Association indicates that five to ten percent of all death penalty row offenders are suffering from serious mental illnesses. Thus, the main issue is where the death penalty is a right or wrong way of mandatory for anyone who kills another? Who gives the right to law enforcement officers and the court to decide whether the mentally challenged person has the right to live or to die? Does the death penalty violate human rights?

While investigating disadvantages of the death penalty for mentally challenged people, it is necessary to mention its geographical extension. Nowadays the trend of abolishing the capital punishment is observed throughout the world. According to Amnesty International, 139 countries among 196 have abolished the death penalty. However, according to the statistics, 2,024 people were sentenced to death in 67 countries in 2010. Furthermore, 17,833 prisoners have got the definitive (immutable) sentence: capital punishment. There are five leading countries that still apply death penalty as a capital punishment: China (470 deceases), Iran (317 deceases), Saudi Arabia (143 deceases), Pakistan (135 deceases), the United States of America (40 deceases) and Iraq (33 deceases). These countries retain the capital punishment for ordinary crimes (murder, rape, espionage, adultery, sodomy, apostasy, human trafficking, etc.). Furthermore, there are nine countries that practice the death penalty under extraordinary consequences (may relate to the crimes under military war): Bolivia, Brazil, Cook Islands, El Salvador, Fiji, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Peru (Willing & Fields, 15). However, until nowadays the court has not cast doubt on the constitutionality whether the offender belongs to the mentally sick inmates or not. The legal system still applies the capital punishment for mentally ill in the same level as for the healthy felons. For instance, since 1983, 60 mentally challenged people have been sentenced to the death penalty in the United States of America. Moreover, in 1998 the Bureau of Justice Statistics pointed out that approximately 283, 000 mentally disabled people completed punishment in the U.S. prisons. For example, Viet Nam veteran Manny Babbitt was condemned to the death penalty by California in 1999 after he killed cruelly a woman. Babbitt wrapped his victim in a bedcover and tagged her, while he thought that she was a fellow soldier. The diagnosis of Babbitt is inconsolable, since he was suffering from post-traumatic stress after getting a serious injury in the Viet Nam War. Furthermore, in 2004 Kelsey Patterson was condemned to the death penalty by the Texas Court, since he committed violent crimes. However, the doctors diagnosed this felon and pointed out that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Indisputably, the history of the death penalty is full of cases like Manny Babbitt and Kelsey Paterson, and this case has become a perplexing issue in the modern legal system.

Historically, the death penalty has been in practice in most countries, except Kievan Rus (a medieval polity in Europe that existed from the 9th to the 13th centuries). The first example of reminiscence of the death penalty is the Code of Hammurabi in which it was stated about various punihments amenably to the different classes of victims and felons. The most notable legal document of application of the death penalty is Athenian legal system that was written by the legislator of Athens Draco in about 622 BC. According to this document, the capital punishment was used in order to punish a particular range of offenders.

Indisputably, high-professional psychologists and the law enforcement officers should work with the mentally retarded people in order to provide diagnosis of the felons. Moreover, these professionals should be highly qualified in manipulative techniques, while the offenders can employ them in order to cover the evidence of crime. In this case, the psychologists and the law officers should make a thorough analysis of felon’s mental functioning, behavior, cognitive thinking and adaptive abilities. Consequently, the law officers should employ a verdict of “Guilty but Mentally Retarded” in order to excuse mentally challenged humans from a possible sentence of death. However, the application of this verdict does not mean that mentally disable people should be allowed to back into their normal environment. It is generally true that these people can put other humans in the constant danger, and put a serious threat into society. Instead, the legal system should establish appropriate conditions for mentally retarded people in order to analyze their behavior, incentives to perform a crime, and cognitive decay.

Undoubtedly, the death penalty for mentally ill people is the cruelest way of punishment, while the mentally retarded felons are not fully aware that they performed the criminal act, cannot clearly comprehend their own transgression, and cannot utterly realize the true nature of their punishment. Consequently, the main function of death penalty, such as deterrence and retribution would not be applicable.

In the framework of defining the shortcoming in the American legal system, it is highly recommended to analyze the distinct definition of mentally challenged people. According to the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), mentally illness or mentally retardation is a condition of health, characterized by considerable impairment of human normal cognitive, behavioral or emotional functioning that can be followed by aggressive behavior, hallucinations, nervous breakdowns and uncontrollable cruel actions. The evolution of defining mental retardation consists of three historical landmarks. First of all, in 1983 the AAMR defined mental retardation as a developmental lagging that includes serious problems in adaptive behavior. Secondly, in 1992 the AAMR pointed out a new definition of mentally retarded that referred to substantial deficits in the applicable adaptive skills, such as communication, behavioral problems, and self-care issues. Finally, in 2000 the AAMR defined mental retardation as a serious disability that could become apparent in the limitations of adaptive behavior and intellectual development. Moreover, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities officially renamed the term “mental retardation” to the new definition “intellectual disability”. Robert Schalock (2007), Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Hastings College, pointed out that humans have unclear understanding of the concept of intellectual disability, since this term accurately describes the individuals suffering from cognitive delays. Scientists have distinguished three main factors of classifying a person as mentally retarded. First, an individual should have intellectual functioning that is equal to the sub-average level. In this case, intelligence quotient tests are defined as appropriate means of determining cognitive functioning; however, it is vital not to confuse mental illness with low IQ. A common standard of IQ is 70 %; but the numbers alone do not show the clear picture whether a person is mentally challenged or not. The second factor is determination of human competence and behavior. People with mental retardation are constantly suffering from stress, bad mood and pressure. Moreover, these people can be identified as the autonomous members of society, who prefer to be alone, not to communicate, to withdraw into themselves and to perform their everyday duties monotonously. Additionally, their level of intellectual development and logical thinking are limited. The third factor is manifestation of personal disability in early adulthood. This feature can be the best identification of exposure of fictitious behavior of the felon who wants to be found as mentally retarded and deceive an investigation (Human Rights Watch, 2000).   

It is distinctly apprehended that people who have mental illnesses are at a higher risk of being sentenced to the death. Mentally ill people are more inclined to falsely confess to a crime, since they want to please the law enforcement officers who are investigating the crime. Furthermore, mentally challenged people are less likely to work with their lawyers productively in order to prepare their defense, comparing to healthy offenders, while they do not clearly understand their criminal act, illegal behavior and tremendous consequences of their criminal offence. Comparing to healthy people, they are unable to work with their lawyers in order to help them to prepare their defense. Consequently, mentally ill people can hide from their lawyer or cover the vital information of the crime, while they do not realize the importance of evidence to the outcome of the case. 

Undoubtedly, the death penalty is determined as the most violent way of the capital punishment. Nowadays people argue about whether the death penalty is an effective tool to punish offenders (whether they are healthy or mentally ill) or it is a violent way that contradicts human rights. Supporters of the capital punishment claim that the death penalty considerably decreases the level of offenders in the world. However, they do not take into account the fact that annually the level of crimes highly grows. According to the FBI, the level of the murders in the states where the death penalty was abolished is 23%, to counterbalance it, in the states where the capital punishment is a legal act, the level of the murders has grown to 48 % (BBC, 3). It can be amplified by the fact that the government has chosen the wrong way of abatement of the crimes. Moreover, the adherents of the capital punishment insist on compensation for hurting a victim’s family. Those families demand from the court an equal reckoning for the death of their family member. However, the true reality indicates that one more death will not bring that person back. Moreover, those families can feel a depression and unwillingness to live, while they have killed the other person in the same way as he/ she did to their relative. In this case, the victim’s family, the court and the lawyer became the murders, since they proclaimed the death penalty as the unique way of punishment. Their disputes had an effect on occurrence of the alternative methods to capital punishment: life imprisonment. Indisputably, the law enforcement officers can deeply analyze the case, a felon’s mental condition, and his/ her motives to perform a crime by applying life imprisonment. Moreover, this method of conviction is more humanistic way of punishment. The question is why does the death penalty totally violate human rights and ethical principles?

First of all, the death penalty is a barbarous way of punishing people, especially if it is applied to the mentally challenged people, while the human right to live is not taken into consideration. It is generally true that humans have the right to life. Nevertheless, it is a murder of other people. Sentencing a person to death and executing him or her violates that right. When applying the capital punishment, the offender forfeits his/ her natural right to life. In the book Summa theologiae, written by the medieval theologist Thomas Aquinas, it is stated that nobody has a right to kill a person if he/ she does not want to turn into the evil (Roberts, 2000). The death penalty evokes the feelings of malice, abhorrence and fury. Moreover, the Bible indicates that there is no excuse for killing. Instead of applying the death penalty, the person should forgive the offender as God always forgives human sins (Barnes, 2000).

Secondly, by using the death penalty, there is a probability to impose a capital punishment upon the innocent person. For instance, the law officer has judicially accused a person of killing due to his/ her plea of guilty. However, this law officer cannot take into account the mental condition that has considerably influenced that person to confess. Moreover, the innocent person cannot realize the complexity of the situation concerning his/ her serious mental health problems. For example, 82 inmates were dismissed from the death row in 1976 due to the wrong and thoughtless court decisions (BBC, 2010). Looking at the other side, the innocent person may be killed according to the unskilled juridical verdicts. What kind of protection do the innocents have? What penalties will the law officers have conducting the death of the person due to the illegal and wrong conclusion of the court?

Currently, the American legal system is working on the issue concerning application of the corporal punishment to the mentally challenged people. For instance, 38 American states prohibited application of the corporal punishment against mentally retarded people. Furthermore, American states, such as Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee abolished the death penalty for people who have serious mental illnesses. Moreover, the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits application of cruel punishments, while it spreads violence in the world. According to this Bill, the court and the law enforcement officers should accurately investigate the crime case before taking a decision, especially if the felon is suffering from mental disorders. Additionally, on June 20, 2002, the Supreme Court adopted a new rule, commonly known as the end of application of the death penalty to those who are suffering from intellectual disability. For example, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court claimed that execution of mentally challenged people is an unconstitutional act and an evident violation of the Eighth Amendment. However, nowadays the corporal punishment for mentally ill people is still permitted in some American states, including the big states, such as California.

All in all, the 21th century indicates the new level of development of the society where humanistic approaches should be applied in the fight against the criminal. The time of barbarism, slavery and race discrimination has gone. Modern world demands modern education in the justice system and high-qualified measures of spreading the law and human rights among the people. In this world, the death penalty should be considered as the moral dishonor and the violent act against God, human and social views.

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