Opinion L.A.
Opinion

A psychiatric ward on death row? It's enough to drive you insane.

California will try to cure mentally ill prisoners so it can execute them

After a court-appointed monitor of mental health for California's state prisons told a panel of judges that about three dozen inmates on death row were so mentally ill that they required 24-hour care, state prison officials announced that they would build a 40-bed hospital at San Quentin to house them.

"This is the only place on Earth where you'd be talking about building a psychiatric hospital for condemned prisoners," UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring told Times reporter Paige St. John. "It is a measure of American greatness and American silliness at the same time.... We are curing them to make them executable."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that mentally impaired inmates could not be executed, but it gave states some discretion as to how to implement this. The idea was that the punishment loses its meaning if victims of capital punishment are too mentally disabled to understand. Some states, like Florida, set a standard of not carrying out executions of inmates with IQs under 70. Texas, which has a high execution rate, chose other standards of measuring IQ.

Take, for example, the case of Andre Thomas, a Texas schizophrenic who stabbed his estranged wife and two young children to death, dropped their organs in his pocket and went to the police station to confess. A few days later, he gouged out his right eye. While in prison, he gouged out his other eye and ate it. He was sentenced to death, but to what end?

Recognizing the absurdity of the live-or-die 70 IQ cutoff, the U.S. Supreme Court in May overturned the practice in a case involving a Florida man. "Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

States have gone to extreme lengths to make their prisoners sane enough to kill.

In 2006, Texas obtained permission from a judge to force-feed antipsychotic medications to Steven Staley, a murderer and armed robber condemned to death, because "the state has an essential interest in ensuring that the sentence of this court [execution] is carried out."

Emily Bazelon in 2012 described Staley's mental state in Slate: "Doctors who have examined Staley on death row have said that he talks in a robot-like monotone yet has 'grandiose and paranoid' delusions, including the beliefs that he invented the first car and marketed a character from Star Trek. He has given himself black eyes and self-inflicted lacerations and has been found spreading feces and covered with urine. Medicated with the anti-psychotic drug Haldol, Staley complained of paralysis and sometimes appeared to be in a catatonic state. He has worn a bald spot on the back of his head from lying on the floor of his cell."

An appeals court stayed the force-feeding order in 2013.

If you think about it, this can make your brain hurt:

A guy commits a terrible crime, probably because he is mentally ill;

The state cures his mental illness, or mitigates it enough so that he qualifies for execution;

The now-saner man is executed for a crime he wouldn't commit now — because he's sane.

Or conversely:

A guy commits a terrible crime, probably because he is mentally ill;

The state fails to cure his mental illness, or mitigate it enough so that he would qualify for execution;

The insane man, who would remain a threat to society were he to escape somehow, lives out his life — not that he's much aware of it.

It's not just the prisoners who are nuts.

Follow Ted Rall on Twitter @tedrall

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
67°