Colorado Rights Blog

ACLU of Colorado By: ACLU of Colorado 12.5.2014

Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

This past week the state of Texas was scheduled to execute a severely mentally ill man.  Scott Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illness most of his life.  In 1992 he went off his medication, dressed in full camouflage and murdered his mother and father-in-law in front of his wife and daughter.  When he went to trial he was allowed to represent himself during both the guilt and penalty phases of the proceedings.  He dressed in a cowboy costume at court and attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and the Pope, among others.  During the trial he assumed the personality he called “Sarge” and narrated the events in the third person.

Ultimately, Panetti received a death sentence and although his many appeals focused on his mental illness, each was denied and he was scheduled for execution.  As the date neared, the issue of executing people with mental illness came to the forefront in Texas and around the country.  Many people came out against executing Panetti including former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, former Texas Gov. Mark White, conservative leaders, religious leaders, prominent lawyers, and over 94,000 people signed a petition for clemency.

At this same time a nationwide poll conducted by the University of North Carolina found that Americans oppose the death penalty for persons with mental illness by a margin of 2 to 1.  This opposition was consistent across all political parties, all regions of the country, across both genders, and all income and education levels.

The court requires that an inmate have a rational understanding of why he is being executed. On the morning of Panetti’s scheduled execution date, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay “in order to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter.”  Panetti’s last competency exam was seven years ago.

This issue of whether states should be executing people with mental illness has grown as knowledge of these illnesses has increased throughout the years.  Some states including North Carolina and Kentucky have considered legislation to bar the execution of a defendant who “had a severe mental disorder or disability that significantly impaired his or her capacity to appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of his or her conduct, exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct, or conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law.”  In addition, public outcry has grown as states have moved forward with executions of those who showed signs of and were diagnosed with severe mental illness.

The topic will become important in Colorado as we are bracing for a year-long very public and emotional trial that will look into competency, mental illness and the insanity defense.  Jurors will have to decide whether James Holmes, the Aurora theater shooter, was sane at the time of his crime and whether he qualifies for the death penalty.  Holmes’ mental health history will become a part of their decision and the question again will be, do we execute people with mental illness?



  • Cedric Watkins is a father, uncle, entrepreneur-in-training, and a vital community pillar for many others. While behind bars, he has tirelessly devoted himself to serving his peers and his community. He developed gang disaffiliation programs for other incarcerated individuals and is currently involved with Defy Ventures. He sends letters and calls his daughter as much as he can.

    Cedric is currently in prison at Sterling Correctional Facility. He was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping, theft and sentenced to 80 years; no one was seriously injured or killed. For comparison, a person convicted of second-degree murder in Colorado faces a maximum sentence of 48 years. Cedric has already served 20 years and has fully rehabilitated during that time.

    It’s time to bring Cedric home: Redemption is real. Clemency is compassion.

  • On November 21, 2016, 13 Aurora police officers responded to a simple noise complaint at Alberto Torres’s home. As happens all too often, Aurora police officers escalated this minor issue into a brutal affair. They beat Mr. Torres solely because he delayed exiting his garage to ask his wife to interpret for him. With that beating, the lives of Mr. Torres and every member of his family were changed and he has yet to recover. ACLU of Colorado fought to obtain justice for Mr. Torres, and Aurora has now paid him $285,000. But money is not justice, and the brutality of the Aurora Police Department against people of color has continued unabated.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Imagine, if instead of 13 officers being dispatched to Mr. Torres’s home for a noise complaint, the City of Aurora sent a civilian-led response team to check on his welfare and ask that he and his friends lower their sound, resulting in a non-violent solution to a minor issue?

    ACLU Settles Case With Aurora After Police Brutalize and Unlawfully Arrest Alberto Torres

  • Hope is a discipline. It’s a commitment that together, we can create a more perfect union. We won’t rest until we fulfill the promise of equal rights for ALL people in the United States.

    Join us in our fight to fulfill this promise and move forward with hope by donating to the ACLU of Colorado. Your donation supports the ACLU’s strengths that make our work effective and collaborative.

    Donate now at

  • Anthony Martinez is 84-years-old and suffering from renal failure, as well as other serious medical conditions including dementia. He is currently incarcerated in the Sterling Correctional Facility, site of one of Colorado’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks with almost 600 active COVID-19 cases. He and his family are understandably terrified that he will catch the virus and die.

    In the midst of this public health crisis, incarcerated people as vulnerable as Anthony, could and should be immediately released to safely live out their remaining years with family.

    Read more about Anthony Martinez and other at-risk incarcerated people.