These words by David Bruck, a lawyer who has
represented numerous capital defendants, appeared in the
International Herald Tribune on June 23, 1987. Most people not only
agree with the sentiment expressed but believe that only the most
cunning and culpable of criminals are executed in this country--that
the mentally ill and mentally retarded are explicitly excluded. Far
too often, however, they are wrong.
As things now stand, mentally disadvantaged
defendants often have to rely on a defense referred to as "diminished
capacity." This simply means that such defendants may have known
right from wrong but did not have full control over their actions,
resulting in an inability to refrain from acts that people of
average abilities could resist or simply would not commit.
Two basic problems face capital defendants trying
to prove diminished capacity in court. The first is the skepticism
with which most people view such a defense. All people are assumed
to be normal and fully responsible for their actions, so it is the
defendants' burden to prove otherwise.
Many people mistakenly believe that they can just
look at a defendant and tell if he or she has a significant mental
disorder. Even when a competent psychiatrist has diagnosed a mental
illness or mental retardation, juries tend to dismiss the diagnosis
if the defendant "looks normal."
There are several reasons for this. First, there
is a general lack of confidence in psychiatric testimony. Second,
there is a pervasive feeling that psychiatrists testifying for the
defense will give whatever diagnosis is desired--and that
psychiatrists testifying for the state are somehow more credible and
less likely to be "bought." Third, it is generally assumed that a
person whose life is on the line will feign a mental disorder and be
able to fool even the best-trained psychiatrist. And finally, even
if the defendant is proven to be mentally disturbed, it is often
felt that she or he is somehow "getting away" with the crime. These
feelings present formidable obstacles for any mentally disadvantaged
defendant to overcome.
The second basic difficulty with proving
diminished capacity has to do with the nature of capital crimes
themselves. Often these are terrible crimes of a disturbing and
heinous nature, and the trials can become extremely emotionally
charged, leading many jurists to ignore even clear cases of a mental
The U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that mental
disorders are mitigating factors, but this has not prevented
mentally disadvantaged people from ending up on death row. It is
estimated that 10 percent of all current death-row inmates are
mentally ill and another 10 percent are mentally retarded. That
translates to more than 600 mentally disadvantaged defendants
currently under sentence of death in this country today. Some have
already been executed.
Varnell Weeks was executed in Alabama for murder.
Weeks had been diagnosed as being severely mentally ill and
suffering from a "longstanding paranoid schizophrenia."
Psychiatrists testifying for both the defense and prosecution agreed
that he suffered from pervasive and bizarre religious delusions.
Weeks believed that he was God, that his execution was part of a
millennial religious scheme to destroy humankind, and that he would
not die but, rather, would be transformed into a giant tortoise and
reign over the universe.
An Alabama judge acknowledged that Weeks believed
he was God in various manifestations and that he was a paranoid
schizophrenic who suffered delusions. The judge's ruling went on to
say that Weeks was "insane" according to "the dictionary generic
definition of insanity" and what "the average person on the street
would regard to be insane." However, the judge ruled that the
electrocution could proceed because Weeks' ability to answer a few
limited questions about his execution proved that he was legally "competent."
Varnell Weeks - Alabama.
Psychiatrists for both the state and the defence
diagnosed Varnell Weeks as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia,
with symptoms including hallucinations and delusions. No evidence of
his mental condition was introduced at the trial.
Once he had been convicted, he waived the jury
sentencing, and asked the (elected) judge to sentence him to death.
Prison records revealed that he would on occasion stand in his cell
naked and smeared with feces, making incomprehensible sounds.
At a hearing to determine his competency for
execution, Varnell Weeks appeared with a domino tied to a string on
his shaved head. In response to the judge's questions, he responded
with a rambling discourse on serpents, "cybernetics", albinos,
Egyptians, the Bible and reproduction.
He believed he was God in various forms, that his
execution was part of a millennial religious scheme to destroy
mankind, and that he would not die but that he would be transformed
into a tortoise and reign over the universe.
The judge acknowledged Weeks' mental illness and
delusions, and stated that he was "insane" according to "the
dictionary generic definition of insanity" and what "the average
person on the street would regard as insane". However, the judge
ruled that the electrocution could proceed.