Senseless Violence from Beirut to Ohio

Witness room facing the execution chamber at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville,Ohio

Ohio execution chamber, 2009 CAROLINE GROUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

The life of Abdul Hamin Awkal has been punctuated by violence. And on June 6, unless the Governor of Ohio steps in, his life will end in the violence of execution.

Born in Beirut in 1959, he grew up in a family with an abusive father and a history of mental illness. In 1975, when he was a teenager, the Lebanese civil war broke out, unleashing waves of violence. There followed 8 years of witnessing dismembered bodies, bombings and kidnappings. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Oregon Execution Is Off

Update 5:30pm:  The Governor of Oregon has said he will block the execution of Gary Haugen, and indeed all executions in his state.

Today the Oregon Supreme Court, by a 4-3 vote (“It is by such razor-thin margins that we determine who lives and who dies”) declined to order a new mental competency hearing for Gary Haugen, who is orchestrating his own execution, now definitively scheduled for December 6.

There is ample evidence that Mr. Haugen suffers from serious mental illness (beyond his “volunteering” to be executed), but he fired the lawyers who were attempting to put that evidence in front of a judge.


Choosing To Be Executed, Or Choosing To End Executions?

Yesterday in Alabama, Christopher Johnson was executed.  Despite a childhood spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, he had been allowed to represent himself at trial and then refuse to pursue appeals.  He seemingly wanted to die.

More than one in ten U.S. executions since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 has been a “volunteer” like Christopher Johnson.  Another, Gary Haugen, is slated to be put to death in Oregon on December 6.  Oregon, unlike Alabama, rarely executes prisoners; its last two executions (in 1996 and 1997) were also of “volunteers”.  Oregon is one of several states that have executed only “volunteers”.  (Connecticut, Idaho, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are the others – Nevada has executed 11 “volunteers”, but only one prisoner whose appeals were fully heard.)  At least one study has found a strong correlation between “volunteering” for execution and mental illness.

There is evidence that Gary Haugen is not mentally fit to choose to give up his appeals.  But courts haven’t heard that evidence because, well, he’s given up his appeals.  For a state that has never been enthusiastic about the death penalty, that’s a troubling catch-22.


Forcible Medication Now, Lethal Injection Next

The medical profession, whose prime directive is “do no harm,” gets dragged into the mud when health care providers are required, or choose, to get involved in executions.  Back in January, Ty Alper, associate director of Berkeley Law School’s Death Penalty Clinic, wrote an important paper on the participation of doctors in executions, or rather the widespread failure to exclude their participation.  “Nearly all capital punishment states specifically call for doctors to be involved in some way,” he told Canada Views, which was reporting on an award he has received this week for his work.

But there are also ways outside of the execution chamber that health care professionals can contribute to the execution of a prisoner, in violation of their basic oath.  One area where the medical profession and the death penalty collide is in the execution of the mentally ill, a distressingly regular practice of our capital punishment system.  Tennessee, for example, is still scheduled to execute a seriously mentally ill man, Stephen West, on Nov. 9.  A similar execution in Texas has been postponed, as Lone Star State authorities try to forcibly medicate a severely mentally ill manSteven Kenneth Staley – so he can become temporarily competent enough to be put to death. 

Texas capital punishment and science have always had an uneasy relationship.  From trying to quash an investigation into bad forensic science, to paying psychiatrists (including Dr. James Grigson, aka “Dr. Death”) to convince juries of someone’s “future dangerousness”, to seeking to hide basic information about the drugs used for executions, to attempting to revive the scientifically invalid practice of scent lineups, Texas capital punishment enthusiasts have never had a problem taking steps that undermine the respectability of the medical and scientific professions. 

But even by these standards, if the state is calling on doctors, or other medical professionals, to forcibly medicate a man for the sole purpose of killing him, that is pretty low.

Does Knowing Your Rights Make You Insane?

Andrei Bondarenko

© Vinnytsya Human Rights Group

Andrei Bondarenko, a trade union activist, was ordered to undergo a forced psychiatric examination by a court in Vinnytsya, south west Ukraine. He is in hiding and fears that he will be subjected to psychiatric treatment  because of his legitimate trade union and human rights activities. Andrei has never been treated or diagnosed with a mental illness, and has undergone three psychiatric examinations to prove his sanity. Nevertheless, a court granted the order for an examination after prosecutors argued that Andrei Bondarenko has an “excessive awareness of his own and others’ rights and [an] uncontrollable readiness to defend these rights in unrealistic ways.”

Through Andrei’s work as a trade unionist and a human rights activist, he has butted heads with powerful local leaders. Many of those leaders have a financial interest in repressing the very workers that Andrei campaigns for. He has not hesitated to expose the irresponsible and inadequate behavior of officials, and in August 2010 he registered an NGO called Movement for a Corruption Free Vinnytsya Region Prosecutor’s Office.

Since 2007, the Vinnytsya Prosecutor’s Office has pushed for a forced psychiatric examination of Andrei four times. Each time the request has been refused by the court because of his certification of mental health from various psychiatrists. However, on 29 October of this year, a judge ordered Andrei to submit to a psychiatric examination in a closed court session where Andrei was not present and his lawyer was kicked out of the courtroom.

Knowing one’s own rights and advocating on behalf of others is perhaps the sanest thing one could do, but Andrei could be forced to undergo possibly dangerous psychiatric treatment for doing exactly that.

Prove your sanity and take action on behalf of Andrei now!

Claire Lesikar, Campaign for Individuals at Risk, contributed to this post.

A Troubling Week in Texas

The death penalty is always inhumane, and the past few days in Texas have brought to light some of its most worrisome aspects.

On Wednesday, The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended that Robert Thompson’s death sentence for his role in a 1996 robbery and shooting be commuted to life imprisonment. The shooter, Sammy Butler, was convicted and received life in prison, which raises serious questions about the arbitrary nature of how the death penalty works in real life. Why wait until the last minute to discuss the disproportionality of sentencing the accomplice to death while the man who pulled the trigger is sentenced to life in prison?

Earlier this week a federal judge in Houston granted a last-minute stay to Gerald Eldridge, allowing 90 days for a review of his mental state and capacity. Executing the mentally ill is extremely problematic, and the time to deal with such a serious issue is not during a prisoner’s last meal. Such jarring, nerve-wracking changes at the last second are traumatic for everyone involved, including the victims’ families.


The Execution of John Muhammad

UPDATE:  Virginia Governor Tim Kaine has denied John Muhammad’s request for clemency.

This evening Texas and Virginia, the two most prolific executing states in the USA, are both slated to carry out lethal injections.  Texas has scheduled an execution for Yosvanis Valle – a Cuban national – while Virginia is preparing to put to death John Allen Muhammad, known by most simply as the “DC sniper”.  The crimes for which John Muhammad is known inflicted serious trauma not just on the victims  and their families but on the entire Washington DC area.

But we at Amnesty International oppose the death penalty in all cases without exception.  Like torture, the deliberate killing of prisoners is a fundamental violation of human rights.  No human being, no matter how unsympathetic or how heinous the crimes for which he has been convicted, should ever be subjected to the kind of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that both torture and executions represent.  There are lines that we as a society should simply not cross, or lines that we should not cede to our governments the power to cross.  And there have to be better ways to respond to traumatic crimes than with violations of basic human rights.


Double Tragedies

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.