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?



  • 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. 

  • Ronald Johnson is pre-diabetic, suffers from asthma and high blood pressure, and regularly uses an inhaler to breathe. His age and respiratory ailments put him at risk of serious illness and death if he contracts COVID-19. With over hundreds of active cases in Colorado’s prisons, his family fears he will not make it out alive. His daughter, Amber, says, “In prison, he can’t protect himself and he can’t social distance. My deep fear is that my dad will die in prison. That is an awful, traumatic reality to consider. My chest is tight just thinking about how quickly it spreads and how vulnerable he is.”

    Governor Hickenlooper shortened his sentence following testimony from family, friends and correctional officers advocating for his early release. Yet, he is still eight years away from parole. While he remains in prison, COVID-19 continues to spread. Ronald’s three siblings, four children and four grandchildren are desperate for his release.

    Read more about Ronald Johnson and other at-risk incarcerated people.

  • Tuesday Olson knew her pregnancy was in trouble and tried to access hospital care as soon as possible. But there was a problem: she was in jail. This is her story.
  • It’s time to end the death penalty in Colorado. Family members who lost loved ones to murder speak out against an unjust and broken system.