Capital Punishment of Women and the Mentally Ill

by Philip M. Coons, M.D.

Light through prison barsChistian feminists know the importance of social justice toward “the least of these,” as Jesus taught us—about fairness and compassion toward society’s most vulnerable. And among the most overlooked vulnerable are two categories of prisoners on Death Row: women and the mentally ill.

Women on Death Row

In 2004, special programs from within the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service, and the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women joined together to produce a report titled, The Forgotten Population: A Look at Death Row in the United States through the Experiences of Women.  The report resulted from a survey of 56 women who had been sentenced to death and also examined case studies of 10 women who had already been executed.  One of the study’s authors, Rachel King, an attorney with the Capital Punishment Project of the ACLU, wrote in a press release about the project:  “For the first time, we have a snapshot of the experience of women on Death Row—and the picture is grim. Women who have been condemned to death are put into isolation and forced to endure abusive and degrading conditions that simply have no place in our criminal justice system.”

The report showed that between 1973 and 2004, 148 women were sentenced to death. Indiana, where I live, is thirteenth with 4 women on Death Row. California ranks first with 17, while North Carolina and Texas are tied for second place with 16 each. Between 1973 and 2004, ten women were executed. Of all of the women on death row, 53% were sentenced to death for killing family members. Thirty percent of women receiving death sentences reported having been regularly battered by domestic partners and 11% had been physically abused as children, with still another 14 percent having been abused both in childhood and adulthood. Thirty five percent had drug and alcohol problems and 23% were mentally ill.  The women in the study ranged in age from 22 to 73.  Some of the women had been living on Death Row for nearly 20 years.  Thirty-three of the women had acted with one or more other persons, but according to the report, “In 22 of those, the co-defendant received a sentence other than death—even in cases in which they appeared to be equally culpable” (Executive Summary, Nov. 29, 2004).

One of the most well known cases of a woman who received the death penalty was Karla Faye Tucker, who was executed in Texas on February 3, 1998. Ms. Tucker had been convicted of participating in two heinous murders 15 years previously, but, during her incarceration, she converted to Christianity.  Her remorse and change were so evident and her story so appealing in the media, along with the potential good that many felt she could do within the prison, that even capital punishment proponents such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell urged the then Texas Governor George W. Bush to spare her life, as did Pope John Paul II.  But the governor chose not to intervene, and Karla Faye Tucker was executed by lethal injection.

On April 27, 2000, Bush referred to her case during the PBS News Hour,   telling interviewer Jim Leherer that the case had weighed heavily on his mind.  When asked to tell why, Bush said:

Well, Karla Faye Tucker was a convicted murderess who was on Death Row and she—you know—converted her life to Christ….she was a compelling witness to the Lord, I thought. And unfortunately I saw her, and I say unfortunately because, like many other Americans, I fell in love with her story. And I was most impressed by her, and yet my job as the governor of Texas is to uphold the law of the land. My job isn’t to judge somebody’s heart. I believe that’s up to the almighty God to make that decision. And so when confronted with the facts— the two questions that a governor— at least I ask—is guilt or innocence and was. . . Carla Faye—either had full access to the courts of law in the state of Texas and Washington, D.C., in the federal courts—when I answered those affirmatively, I signed the—the execution went forward.

Bush’s comment shows he missed the whole point about clemency. His function was not to make sure laws were met. That is the function of the various courts of appeal. The function of a governor in granting clemency is to mete out mercy. An insightful article about the Karla Faye Tucker case and other executions in Texas during the governorship of George W. Bush was written by Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun whose story was told in the movie Dead Man Walking.  (See “Death in Texas,” New York Review of Books, Jan. 13, 2005.)

But aside from such high profile cases, the public hears little about women on death row, even though the 2004 report cited earlier found that “women who are sentenced to death are often subjected to harsh living conditions, including being forced to live in virtual isolation, and many are sentenced for crimes that don’t result in a death sentence for men” (ACLU press release, Nov. 29, 2004). Some women reported sexual abuse and harassment and other forms of mistreatment, as well as sensory deprivation. The Executive Summary indicated that among the challenges the women face was “a lack of access to necessary services that are generally available to their male counterparts” and went on to say, “A particularly disturbing finding of the report is the degree to which many of these women live in virtual isolation, which often leads to psychosis or exacerbates existing mental illnesses.

This brings us to a second question: How should we think about executing mentally ill persons who have been found guilty of a capital offense?

Mentally Ill Persons on Death Row

Last summer, I testified at a clemency hearing for a mentally ill man who had been convicted of killing his pregnant wife and both of his parents twenty years ago. Prior to the murders, this man had been a model citizen; he served in the United States Navy, married, joined a church, became a deacon, and served on the church board. He had always dreamed about owning a nice home and property. However, his dreams never materialized. He lived in a mobile home on his parents’ land and had been laid off from work. He developed a delusion that he was going to receive a million dollars from the United States government based upon his secret work on reducing the national debt. He convinced his wife, both sets of their parents, and a few friends that he had enough money to buy a $575,000 farm. He and his wife had initiated plans to buy furniture, a new car and pickup truck, and even had packed boxes in anticipation of his move.  However, on the eve of the real estate closing he killed his wife while being controlled by delusional forces. Still under the same delusional forces, he killed his parents the next morning. A part of him was aware that the killing was wrong, but he was powerless to stop what was happening.

Of the five mental health experts who examined the defendant pretrial, all agreed that he was mentally ill and all agreed that he was volitionally impaired. However, only one of these experts felt that he met the cognitive standard for legal insanity (i.e., the inability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions). He was found guilty and sentenced to be executed. Over the years on Indiana’s death row, he maintained and expanded his delusion. He came to believe that God would turn back time, that his wife and parents would be brought back to life, that the Oklahoma City bombing would not have occurred, and that the national debt would have been obliterated.

He lost his clemency hearing before the Indiana Parole Board by a three to one vote. Some of the members of the parole board maintained that he had been malingering, even though none of the testifying experts (including the one appointed by the parole board) pre and post conviction thought so. His last case before the Indiana Supreme Court regarding his competency to be executed was lost by a narrow three to two vote. Just before he was to eat his last meal, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels granted executive clemency and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Due to fairly recent United States Supreme Court decisions, we no longer execute adolescents who are under age 18 at the time they commit crimes, nor do we execute the mentally retarded. However, we still execute the mentally ill. There is, however, a move afoot amongst some very powerful organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and various public defender organizations, to stop executing the severely mentally ill for crimes committed while they were so impaired. For example, the American Psychiatric Association (2004) proposes in a position statement:

Defendants shall not be sentenced to death or executed if, at the time of the offense, they had a severe mental disorder or disability that significantly impaired their capacity [a] to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness of their conduct, [b] to exercise rational judgment in relation to their conduct, or [c] to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law. A disorder manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable solely to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or other drugs does not, standing alone, constitute a mental disorder or disability for purposes of this provision.

The man in Indiana is fortunate to have escaped the death penalty because Indiana governors have only granted clemency three times in the last 48 years. Indiana executed more people last year than in any other year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.  When Governor Mitch Daniels took office, there were 25 inmates on Indiana’s death row. This is a small number compared to the 152 executions that his former boss, now-president George W. Bush, presided over during his five years as Texas governor (Maureen Hayden, “The new killing fields,” Indianapolis Monthly, 2005, p. 135).

What do we as Christians believe about capital punishment? Recently one of my friends summed it all up: ”I’m a Christian . . .but, I have mixed feelings.” In the United States the Catholic Church (60 million members), the United Methodist Church (13 million members), the Presbyterians (4 million members), the Episcopal Church (2 million members) officially support the abolishment of capital punishment, while the Southern Baptist Convention (16 million members) favor the retention of the death penalty, as do many other fundamentalist and other evangelical denominations.

Capital punishment is mentioned many times in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament.  In the Pentateuch, death is proscribed for a host of behaviors including murder, incest, premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, mediumship, worshiping other gods, cursing God, cursing parents, and working on the Sabbath.  With the exception of murder, we in the United States do not execute people for engaging in any of these other behaviors.
I’ve always been taught that Jesus has the last word on a subject. What did Jesus have to say about the death penalty? Recall the story of the adulterous woman whom the Pharisees brought to Jesus:

Pharisees: “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”

Jesus:  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:4-7, RSV)

What Jesus said was an extremely bold statement during the Biblical times when Rome controlled the Holy Land. Rome routinely executed people for a host of offenses. Their favorite means of execution was by grisly crucifixion. Open opposition to the death penalty would certainly have cost Jesus his life even more prematurely.

What did Jesus say about mercy while he was being executed on the cross?

Criminal on the cross beside Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus: ”Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”  (Luke 23:42-43, RSV)

Over the past ten years or so, my views about the death penalty have been challenged. I have been humbled by the care and concern that public defenders have for their clients. I firmly believe that we should not execute the mentally ill.

What are your views about the death penalty? Do we as Christian feminists really believe in the worth and dignity of all persons regardless of their behavior?  If so, what can we do about what we are learning about women on death row or the execution of the mentally ill?  How can we work for change?  One first step would be to inform ourselves of the 13 recommendations for improving the living situations of women on Death Row as listed in the report cited earlier.  Another way would be to help raise consciousness of the injustice of executing mentally ill persons.


© 2006 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Volume 30, Number 1, Spring (April-June) 2006

Phillip M. Coons
Dr. Philip M. Coons is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine and Attending Physician in Psychiatry at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis. His research has primarily been focused on dissociative disorders and dissociative identity disorder, and he has published over 100 scientific articles and book chapters on these topics. At present, his main clinical work is in the area of forensic psychiatry.