Should We Execute The Mentally Ill? Scott Panetti, The Death Penalty & Mental Illness

Scott Panetti is a mentally ill, death row inmate in the state of Texas. He has long been diagnosed with schizophrenia and is scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2014. He will be the 10th and perhaps the final Texas inmate to be executed this year.

Mr. Panetti has a long history of serious mental illness. He is profoundly mentally ill and is among the sickest persons to be executed in modern times. Before killing his parents-in-law, he was hospitalized 14 times. Evidence of schizophrenia began in his teen years.

He represented himself at trial and did so while under the control of a hallucinatory figure named “Sarge.” He dressed in a purple cowboy suit and rambled incoherently throughout the trial. He attempted to subpoena hundreds of people, including the Pope and Jesus Christ. His behavior frightened the jurors.

There is no doubt that Mr. Panetti should be held accountable for murdering two people.

If you believe that it is possible for anyone to be mentally ill then there will be no doubt in your mind that Mr. Panetti is mentally ill. Long before murdering his parents-in-law he was hospitalized 14 times. First of all, if you are familiar with the American mental health system you know that it is difficult to get hospitalized even once. Many people who should be hospitalized and whose families and loved ones have tried desperately to get them hospitalized have failed to be hospitalized. A significant number of these people have gone on to murder or commit suicide, or both. When you have achieved a record of 14 hospitalizations, you can be pretty sure that you are mentally ill.

That’s the background and now here’s the question. Should we kill mentally ill people? I suppose you could correctly say there is an even more basic question, which would be, should we give the state the power to execute anyone?

And that’s when it gets complicated. That’s when we talk about the fact that we are the last large democracy in the world that executes its citizens. They don’t do it in Scotland, Ireland, England, Italy, France, Germany, etc., etc.

Those countries are our allies and friends. Many of our families have at some point emigrated from one of those countries. Many of us are very proud of our ancestry. We are Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans, etc. Those countries used to execute their citizens but now they are very much against it. They won’t even release a prisoner to the United States unless we promise not impose the death penalty.

Your relatives and countries of origin, just don’t believe in execution anymore. In fact they are very much against any execution for any reason (it may be wise not to bring up this topic at future family reunions).

It is our traditional “enemies,” those countries around the world who are our political opposites, who continue just as we do to execute its citizens.

If I were to write a thorough analysis of the death penalty, honestly it would take me thousands of pages. It is surely worth writing about but this is not the time or place. I mention the above simply to prove the point and acknowledge the fact that this is an exceedingly difficult topic.

Forget the issue of the death penalty in general.

Let’s keep it simple. Is it right, to execute a mentally ill individual?

Let’s make it even simpler. Let’s move to the lowest man-in-the-street level. Is it right to execute a man who is as nutty as a fruitcake?

Let’s also forget big but meaningful words like “schizophrenia” and “psychotic.” Let’s just talk about it from the perspective of your uncle Bob, who might sum up Mr. Panetti’s condition by simply saying “the guy ain’t all there.”

With a psychotic person, he’s just not “not all there,” he’s not there at all. Really. He is living in a fantasy world and by definition has lost the ability to know what is real and what is not real.

That’s the question. Do we kill mentally ill people? I know it begs the question, should America execute its own citizens, legally guilty of course, but still its own citizens.

We need to think about that. We need to form an opinion and voice an opinion. And that opinion had better be correct, lest you be judged.

I seem to remember reading someplace, someplace really important, advice from an appearingly, supremely knowledgeable source. It came in a list of similar declarative warnings.

It seemed more than a suggestion and more than mere advice. It was stronger than a warning and very clear.

“Thou shall not kill.’

Hey, I’m not pretending to speak for God. I’m just wondering if executing a mentally ill man falls under that admonishment.

Mentally Ill People Are Dying in Prisons

Christopher Lopez
Still shot from the video of the final hours of Mr. Lopez’s life

One by one, mentally ill people are dying behind prison walls. One of the latest atrocities is the death of 35-year old Christopher Lopez, a man with schizoaffective disorder who died in the presence of Colorado Department of Corrections prison staff who were too busy laughing and making small talk to pay him any attention.

Christopher Lopez died of hyponatremia, a condition associated with dangerously low levels of sodium. It’s often thought to be caused by too much psychotropic medication. The lawsuit notes that in almost all instances, it’s a condition that’s treatable with prompt and adequate medical attention.

A six-hour video exists in which Mr. Lopez dies right before their eyes–a video that could “ultimately… pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of the dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body…”

The video provides “crystal clarity” of what happened in the final moments of Mr. Lopez’s life.

“We can see the defendants wheel a semiconscious Mr. Lopez down to the intake area of the prison and eventually remove him from the restraint chair. We have a ringside seat to watch Mr. Lopez suffer two grand mal seizures in front of the camera while the defendants idly stand about and discuss their views about Wal-Mart and other equally important topics, laughing and joking with one another, all the while completely ignoring the dying man in their charge. We watch as defendants leave Mr. Lopez face down, still fully restrained, on the floor of the intake cell, too weak to hold his own body upright. We see Mr. Lopez struggling to breathe for hours, and then, finally, we have an unobstructed view as Mr. Lopez takes his last breath, dying, half naked on the cold concrete floor of a prison cell– isolated and alone with no defendant caring whether he lived or died.”

The lawsuit alleges that the Colorado prison officials wanted to punish the prisoner for kicking a correctional officer and were “not interested in finding an appropriate treatment plan” for his severe mental illness.

The lawsuit notes that in the final hours of Mr. Lopez’s life, there were a minimum of 16 correctional staff members whom he encountered yet not one of them took any steps to save his life.

What many people may not realize is that this could happen to their mentally ill brother, sister, father, mother, son or daughter. Because the mental health system is in shambles, many people who would otherwise be in hospitals receiving the proper care and treatment are now in prison. Correctional staff, who receive little or no training about how to handle mentally ill people, are now in charge of their care and often view their symptoms or their unresponsiveness as behavioral problems that need to be punished, mostly with solitary confinement.

There are probably many more horror stories that we don’t hear about or that are buried within the pages of civil lawsuits. Until something is done, and we stop criminalizing mental illness, incarcerated mentally ill people will continue to suffer.

Update: Mother Who Heard Voices Drowned Both Sons

A Pennsylvania woman, Laurel Michelle Schlemmer, 40, drowned her three-year-old son in a bathtub. She also attempted to drown her six-year-old son because “crazy voices” told her she would be a better mother to her third child if the other two “weren’t around.”

According to court documents, the mother put her oldest son, age 7, onto the bus before nine in the morning. She returned to the family home, filled up the bathtub and told the younger boys to take off their pajamas and get into the bathtub. She was fully clothed when she got into the tub as the “crazy voices” told her to push the boys into the water. She sat on top of them while they were submerged under the water.

She told detectives that she thought she would be a better mother to the seven-year-old child if the other two weren’t around. She thought that the other two would be “better off in heaven.”

After getting out of the bathtub, she took off her wet clothes, put them and two towels into a trash bag in the garbage. She then lifted the boys out of the bathtub, put them on the bathroom floor and called 911.

She did not attempt to resuscitate the boys because she “did not know how to do it.”

Another Andrea Yates?

This case is fairly similar to Andrea Yates. Andrea Yates was a middle-class Texas severely mentally ill mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub. The drownings began nearly as soon as her husband left for the day.

She took each child and put them face down in the water, one by one. She then immediately called 911 and spoke “unemotionally” to the authorities.

Soon after she called the authorities, Andrea phoned her husband Rusty. “It’s time. I finally did it” was what she told him on the phone.

Andrea gave a 17 minute confession to the police. Her rationale for killing the children was that she realized she was not a good mother to them and “they weren’t developing correctly.” She also did not want her children to be tormented by Satan. Satan had been conveying “bad thoughts” via the television and cameras in her home. She was frightened that Satan would lure her children to him and that perhaps she had some of Satan in her. She thought that Satan was giving her directions about harming her children and about how to drown them.

Andrea believed that drowning them was a way out for her children who would then be up in heaven, safe with God.

She ultimately thought that she was saving her children by drowning them.

Laurel Michelle Schlemmer might also have believed something similar but it’s too soon to know her exact state of mind.

The most telling aspect of these crimes, is that in both cases the mothers who committed these heinous acts of violence immediately reported themselves to the police. There was no effort to hide what they did, a behavior that often signifies severe mental impairment.

Yet another tragedy involving severe mental illness.

UPDATE: The second child has died and Schlemmer has been charged with homicide.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has reported that she was found not competent to stand trial and was sent to a state mental hospital for further evaluation. A doctor said that she has major depressive disorder, is psychotic and has suicidal ideations.

An April 4, 2014 article states that a 911 worker was fired for disclosing details of the 911 call from Schlemmer. The 911 call-taker said the mother originally said she thought that her children drowned in the bathtub.

Congressional Hearing Addresses Psychiatric Bed Shortage

Wednesday, the Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing about the significant decrease in the psychiatric bed shortage.

One of the witnesses includes the outspoken Sheriff of Cook County Thomas Dart.

Mr. Dart has been trying to do everything within his power to deal with the thousands of mentally ill people passing through the Cook County Jail.

His tweets give you a sense of how bad the problem has become.


Additional testimony will come from Chief Michael C. Biasotti. Mr. Biasotti is the Immediate Past President of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. He has written extensively on the management of the severely mentally ill and their interactions with the police.

He also has a daughter with schizophrenia who has been involuntarily committed more than 20 times.

His recommendation to the committee would be to prevent individuals from decompensating to the point where law enforcement becomes involved.

“Make the seriously mentally ill first in line rather than last. As a law enforcement officer and father, I know treatment before tragedy is a better policy than tragedy before treatment.”

If interested in watching the hearing, you can tune in at 10 AM on the Energy Committee website. Hopefully reform is on the way.

Woman Admits to Stabbing Mother On Video

Katie Nichols, the woman in this video, stabbed her mother in the neck, chest and stomach. Her mother is in the ICU.

The case is still unfolding. According to the details so far, Nichols stuffed a sock in her mother’s mouth and attempted to tie her up. She also strangled her mother until she lost consciousness and then began stabbing her with scissors and two knives.

Though no specific mental illness has been identified, Ms. Nichols is clearly not well. The video of Ms. Nichols is quite unique in that she is openly admitting to stabbing her mother on camera. She also discusses the reasons why she did it.

Ms. Nichols believed that her mother had “symbolic representations of [her] death, [her] daughter’s death and [was privy to] every nuclear explosion that was supposed to happen… the satanic cult has been rounded up and killed now.”

The majority of people with mental illnesses are not dangerous but some can be dangerous, including those experiencing threat/control override delusions.

Threat-based delusions occur when a person believes that someone is trying to harm them.

Control override delusions are beliefs that outside forces are controlling one’s mind.

Many studies have shown that individuals affected by the aforementioned types of delusions are more violent than comparable groups without those delusions, but in many cases, substance abuse may have also contributed to the violent behavior.

Ms. Nichols appears to be demonstrating delusional thinking. She believes that her mother is a member of a cult and that her family is in danger. In her mind, she had to save herself and her child by killing her mother.

Obviously, her mother is not in a satanic cult nor is she controlling nuclear explosions, all of which indicate that Ms. Nichols is quite delusional.

People who are delusional believe their erroneous thinking. To them, their beliefs are 100% real. Evidence contradicting their beliefs do not dissuade their views. They cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not real.

There are some people who feign mental illness after committing a violent act but generally speaking most people don’t. In fact, research shows that the most severely mentally ill people emphatically deny being mentally ill.

Based on her behavior in the video clip, Ms. Nichols seems to truly believe that she had to kill her mother to save herself and her child.

The story of Ms. Nichols and her mother, is yet another illustration of the travesty of untreated mental illness.

Mentally Ill Son Incarcerated: One Reader’s Story

Stories about mentally ill offenders are generally not of a positive nature. Typically, the stories are focused on the disturbing prison conditions often faced by mentally ill offenders increasingly being housed in jails and prisons.

Below is one reader’s story.

“Hi, my son has been suffering from schizophrenia for the past 5 years. In Oct. of 2011 he was baker acted into a local hospital, he refused to take his med ‘s and wanted to be placed where people go that nobody wants any more. A petition was filed, a hearing scheduled to be involuntarily committed to the Florida state hospital. The day before the hearing, he was discharged, the person who he lived with took him to the SSI office and became his payee. the next day she wanted the key to the house back, when my son would not give it to her, she and her boyfriend beat my son in the eye with a baseball bat, causing an Orbital floor fracture. the people who beat him were arrested, the boy plead no contest, the girl was bailed out. she filed a restraining order and the judge granted it because my son could not get a lawyer, she was his payee and did not give him his money, legal aid wouldn ‘t do anything for him because he didn ‘t file the restraining order, she did. two months later our son started to beat up his father, who is also my husband because he went to check on him in his camper, the camper where our son was beat with the baseball bat. the sheriff came, our son ran. the next day, I called the sheriff, who came and arrested my son. I was helping the sheriff and my son bite me. I told the sheriff my son needed to go to the hospital, he was not himself. I wrote letters to the judge and lawyers, the domestic violence case involving his father was dropped and my son was placed on probation for resisting arrest and biting me. In march of 2012 I baker acted my son because he needed help and would not go to the hospital. Another petition was filed, a hearing scheduled for involuntarily placement in the Florida state hospital, a continuance for five days was filed at 9 in the morning before the hearing, at 2 pm that same day, he was discharged. the doctor wrote his prescription for seroquel, not seroquel XR and medicaid would not pay for it. It took a week to get it straightened out. In may his sister walked into his camper while he was sleeping and he pushed her, later that day I called the sheriff because my son was trying to run threw the sliding glass door. my son appeared normal when the sheriff showed up, my son told him about his sister trying to steal from him, the sheriff wouldn ‘t do anything. I told his sister I was going to the court house to file another baker act, but while I was in town, she called the sheriff, who came later that night, i told the sheriff all about the baker act, two hearings and not being committed. he did not care, he was arresting my son.if my son wanted to go to the state hospital he could tell them when he got to the jail, my son pounded his head so hard into the sheriff ‘s car it left a dent and now my son is sitting in the bay county Florida jail and one of his charges is criminal mischief more than 1,000. as you most likely already know, a person must be a danger to themselves or others to be involuntary placed (baker acted) in a hospital.”

Mental health advocate and best selling author of the book “Crazy,” Pete Earley, receives letters from family members struggling with similar mental health issues.  

A few other websites document these stories, the most comprehensive among them is Solitary Watch.

It is important to document these stories. If you know of others don’t hesitate to send your story.

John Lennon’s Killer Up For Parole, Details From the Hearing

For the seventh time, Mark David Chapman was up for parole in the killing of John Lennon. Recently, the State of New York released a transcript from his parole hearing in August 2012. 

Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon in 1980. 

Below are a few highlights from the hearing taken verbatim from the transcript. 

Q. : Do you want to say anything about the instant offense. sir? 

A.: It was a very selfish act and I deeply regret it. I’m sorry for my crime. 

Q…:Why did you target this victim? 

A.: Because he was very famous. 

Q.: All right, So, you knowingly wanted to inflict death to this victim, John Lennon, correct? 

A.: Yes. Absolutely. 

Q.: And even after that [earlier] encounter [with John Lennon], you still waited for him to cause his death? 

A.: Yes. There was an inner struggle for a while there, you know, what am I doing here, leave now. It wasn’t all totally cold-blooded, but most it was. I did try to tell myself to leave. I’ve got the album, take it home, show my wife, everything will be fine. But I was so compelled to commit that murder that nothing would’ve dragged me away from the building. 

Q.: … And the paperback book you had, “The Catcher in the Rye.” Was there any significance to why you had that[?]

A.: At the time, there was a great significance. I identified with the book. I identified with the character, who seemed to be lost and troubled. And in my state of mind at the time, I felt of kind I had was him [sic]. And so, the book was like saying, this is me and I wanted people to read it and it was a confusing time for me. 

Q.: You said that you did this for the attention and notoriety? 

A.: Yes ma’am.

Q. : And how do you feel about it today?

A,: Absolutely not worth it. Absolutely ridiculously selfish act to take another human life so that I could be pumped up into, you know something that I wasn’t to begin with. I deeply regret it.

Q:… How do you feel about yourself now?

A: Because of my years, I was thinking about this and my age, it’s 57, I’ve come to the conclusion what happened was a very horrible thing. It did not need to be done. It was done for extremely selfish reasons that I regret to this day. I personally can’t think of anything more selfish to do, to take somebody’s life for your own aggrandizement and there were a lot of people in pain then and people that were still want to know what happened now. 

Q: People are still in pain, right? 

A. There [sic] still in pain, sir. I get letters all the time. 

Q.: Are you still in pain? 

A.: That’s a great question, sir. I wouldn’t say as much pain. I would say that the pain I have now is trying to stay as close as I can to what I think is right and that is to stay as close as I can to God. 

Q.: … Who else did you consider [killing]? 

A.: Johnny Carson, … George C. Scott. 

Q.: Did you share this plan with anyone, this cold, calculated plan?

A.: …[My wife]. And she said Mark, don’t, right away. And I flew home and met her at the door of our apartment and hugged and cried and it was over at that point. I was fine. In the weeks later, the compulsion started to build again. I felt like a piece of me had become empty again and the compulsion built again. 

Q.: … If you were to be released, what happens if you drift off again?

A.:… If released, I probably stay right where I’m at. You know, once you stand on a rock for 20 years and feel the waves on you and you don’t go anywhere because you’re on a rock, you don’t want to move. I’ve had a lot of waves coming through my life and I know how to handle it now.


Mark David Chapman was ultimately denied parole. The parole board stated that:

“…if released at this time, there is a reasonable probability that you would not live and remain at liberty without again violating the law and your release at this time is incompatible with the welfare and safety of the community…. Your action [the murder of an international music star] demonstrates a callous disregard for the sanctity of human life.” 

I highlighted many parts of the transcript of the August 2012 parole board interview with John Lennon’s killer. It is interesting to read about how big of a role the book “The Catcher in the Rye” played in the life of Mark David Chapman. You can read the entire 39 page interview here

Parents of Mentally Ill Psych Hospital Shooter Blog About the Incident

Two Interesting News Stories

Sea of Heartbreak: Blog Post By Parents Of Killer John Shick Leaves More Questions Than Answers

Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The above article is about a blog post by the parents of a schizophrenic man John Shick who killed one person and wounded 5 others on a shooting spree at a large psychiatric facility in Pittsburgh, PA on March 8, 2012. You can read the entire blog post by his parents here. It is very interesting to read the words of his parents. You don’t often have access to such materials.

Shick had a history of schizophrenia and was involuntarily committed four times since 2005. His parents stated that he would often stop taking his medication, and “over the last years [their relationship] was difficult at best, as he became increasingly surly, withdrawn, and verbally abusive, though never physically threatening.”

John Shick was killed by police on the day of the incident.

Voices from Solitary: “The SHU Is California’s Equivalent of Waterboarding”


Continuing with their “Voices of Solitary” chronicles, this article is written by an inmate in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). Inmates in SHU spend on average 22 1/2 hours in a cell alone, for an average of over 6 years. Very powerful.



Find Out What The Criminalization Hypothesis Is

Criminalization Hypothesis

Have you ever heard of the criminalization hypothesis? The basic premise is that individuals with serious mental illnesses (SMI) (i.e. schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, mainly) are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system because they are committing crimes and being arrested for offenses because of their untreated illness symptoms.

Abramson, more than 30 years ago, was the first to discuss “criminalization.” He believed that individuals with SMI are being routed through the criminal justice system instead of the mental health system.  He observed that trend in the early 1970s.


Defenders of the criminalization hypothesis cite studies (among others) such as Linda Teplin’s 1984 Chicago study in which it was found that individuals with a mental illness were arrested at a higher rate than those without a mental illness. The rate of arrests for individuals deemed mentally ill was 46.7 % compared to 27.9 % for individuals not appearing to have a mental illness. Teplin concluded from her study that individuals who appeared to be mentally ill had a higher probability of being arrested than those who did not. In her opinion, “clearly the way we treat our mentally ill is criminal.”

Not Everyone Agrees

Not everyone agrees with the criminalization hypothesis. Scientifically, it is difficult to prove. Within academic circles, it is a debate that may never be resolved.

In a future post, I will discuss alternative theories. What do you think?

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Mentally Ill Offenders By The Numbers

 Within the academic literature and government data, there exists a great deal of variability with regard to the numbers of mentally ill offenders in the US penal system. It can be difficult to know how big the problem is. Also complicating matters is that some reports estimate “mental illness,” “mental health problems,” while others estimate “serious mental illness.” The way in which those are defined matter. Below is a look at some of those figures.

Government Reports

  • The 2006 Bureau of Justice Report (BJS) cited that 1,264,000 individuals had mental health problems. A 1999 BJS reported cited approximately 283,000.

Journal Article Reports

  • In 2007, Lamb and colleagues estimated that 15% of the 2.1 million prisoners had a severe mental illness.
  • A study of Utah’s state prisoners estimated that 23% of the over 9,200 had a severe mental illness.
  • Steadman and colleagues estimated that about 50% of individuals in jails across the United States would be considered severely mentally ill.

Non-Peer Review Reports 

  • In 2003 a Human Rights Watch report estimated that 200,000 to 400,000 prisoners are mentally ill.
  • The Treatment Advocacy Center and The National Sheriffs’ Association looked at data in 16 states and estimated that about 15 to 20% of inmates had a serious mental illness.