Death Row Inmates: Diminished Culpability

Willie Jerome Manning is yet again waiting for developments in both his cases. As he waits, he is in close proximity to his fellow inmates, and may well be aware of many who are extremely vulnerable. A study published in June, The Failure of Mitigation?draws our attention to the likely mental condition of these men, based on an analysis of the social histories of the hundred people most recently executed. It concludes that a staggering nine out of ten of those executed had one or more conditions associated with significant functional deficits.

The study itemizes these conditions:

  • One third of the last hundred executed offenders were burdened by intellectual disability, borderline intellectual functioning or traumatic brain injury – a similarly debilitating intellectual impairment…
  • Over half of the last one hundred executed offenders had been diagnosed with or displayed symptoms of a severe mental illness
  • More than one third of executed offenders committed a capital crime before turning twenty-five – the age at which the brain fully matures…
  • Fifty per cent of the last hundred executed defendants around the country suffered from complex trauma… severe physical abuse, sexual molestations, domestic violence, the immediate loss of immediate family and chronic homelessness.”

Many of those executed fall into more than one category, including Edwin Hart Turner, executed by Mississippi in 2012, who is categorized under youthfulness, mental illness and childhood trauma.

The authors of the study refer to the US Supreme Court’s mitigation project, which aims to preclude the death penalty for those with diminished culpability. They highlight the Court’s failure to protect such individuals from sentences of death.

They conclude:

“… our project suggests the need for other scholars to conduct more comprehensive examinations of both the failings of the Court’s mitigation-facilitating doctrines as well as the implication for these deficits on the continued constitutionality of the death penalty.”

Although the study focuses on legal issues, the statistics also raise broader questions: for instance, are vulnerable individuals treated appropriately when incarcerated? It seems highly unlikely that a system designed merely to contain and restrain can provide suitable treatment or rehabilitation.

In 2010 Willie wrote,

“This is one of the worst things that any person could ever go through in their life.”

For Willie’s companions with reduced mental faculties, the impact of this intensely harsh environment must surely be unbearable.

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