NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Not Guilty, by Reason of Psychiatry

February 28, 2003

In it June 2002 Atkins v. Virginia decision, the Supreme Court once again changed its mind about whether mental retardation should exempt a murderer from the death penalty. A majority of justices concluded that a "national consensus" had been reached in opposition to executing mentally retarded persons, and thus doing so would henceforth be unconstitutional.

Psychiatrists are brought in by the courts to evaluate defendants cognitive functioning. In addition to mental retardation, there are a number of psychiatric conditions or mental illnesses that diminish the ability to think, as the majority opinion in Atkins noted.

Given the high rate of serious mental illness among homicide defendants, if psychiatric exemptions are granted, there would be very few individuals eligible for the death penalty.

Whatever we may think of the morality of the death penalty, says Douglas Mossman, we should recognize that this strategy represents a misuse of psychiatry -- one that will harm the profession as well as the legal system.

  • The Atkins decision endorses the use of psychiatric categories to single out groups of citizens for distinctive legal treatment.
  • It fails to recognize that psychiatric diagnoses are created for clinical purposes (chiefly to guide treatment) and are periodically redefined as treatments and scientific findings reveal the errors of older categorizations.
  • Atkins treats psychiatric diagnoses as fixed categories and gives them tremendous legal and social import.

Giving psychiatric diagnosis such a decisive role in capital sentencing may even compound these problems by transforming what should be a moral judgment into a medical conference about a defendant's clinical disorder.

Perhaps the most significant flaw in the Atkins decision, says Mossman, is that it perpetuates the myth that "getting psychiatric help" will make the death penalty fairer and more palatable.

Source: Douglas Mossman, "Psychiatry in the courtroom," Public Interest, Number 150, Winter 2003.


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