Competency of Death Row Inmates to Waive the Right to Appeal: A Proposal to Scrutinize the Motivations of Death Row Volunteers and to Consider the Impact of Death Row Syndrome in Determining Competency

By Cooper, Patricia | Developments in Mental Health Law, July 2009 | Go to article overview

Competency of Death Row Inmates to Waive the Right to Appeal: A Proposal to Scrutinize the Motivations of Death Row Volunteers and to Consider the Impact of Death Row Syndrome in Determining Competency


Cooper, Patricia, Developments in Mental Health Law


See, I want to waive my appeals because I am guilty of murder. I think that I should be executed for what I have done and not because I am supposedly tortured with ultrasound or whatever. I am guilty of murder. I should be executed. That is all there is to it. That is what I believe. I believe the death penalty is a just punishment for four counts of murder, and I believe that I should be executed since I am guilty of four counts of murder.

--Testimony from Joseph Corcoran, who was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia with paranoid delusions, at a hearing to determine his competency to waive appeal (1)

I. Introduction

Joseph Corcoran is one of scores of death row inmates who has chosen not to exercise his Constitutional right to appeal his death sentence. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment in 1976, appeals and other procedures were implemented to safeguard against arbitrary imposition of the death penalty. Although death sentences are overturned at a high rate, many inmates choose not to appeal. Some argue that appeals should be mandatory, but the U.S. Supreme Court has held that competent inmates may waive their right to appeal. Given the prevalence of mental illness among death row inmates and the unconstitutionality of executing the insane, meticulous attention should be devoted to the assessments of their competence.

Determining competency, however, has turned out to be a perplexing task for the courts. Although the U.S. Supreme Court established the standard for determining competence in Rees v. Peyton, this Article argues that the two-prong standard it established is unworkable; that the lower courts have misapplied the Rees standard; and that the Court's failure in Rees to address inmates' motivation for their decisions to waive appeals renders the standard inadequate.

In the quotation from Joseph Corcoran that begins this Article, his seemingly "rational" statements were enough to persuade the court reviewing his case that he was competent to waive his right to appeal. Because Rees does not demand that defendants' motivations for waiving this right be examined, the court did not explore whether his "rational" reasons stemmed from a rational decision-making process or from his mental illness. To address this oversight, this Article proposes establishing a competency standard that addresses the motivations of an inmate and supports the recommendation of the American Bar Association that this third prong be added to the Rees test.

More specifically, when inmates are motivated by suicide, their decisions could reflect rational decision-making, a mental illness, or a lengthy stay in harsh prison conditions. When considering the motivations of death row inmates, the question should arise whether they should be deemed incompetent because their suicidal motivations stem from their confinement--what has been coined death row syndrome. Some attorneys in the United States have raised the argument that an inmate's refusal to pursue any appeals can be attributed to death row syndrome, but it has not yet persuaded a court to overturn a death sentence on that basis.

Nonetheless, this Article argues that death row syndrome should be treated as a mental illness and be incorporated into determinations of inmates' competence to waive their right of appeal. Death row syndrome has not only gained international recognition, but also serves as a justification in other countries for not extraditing criminals to the United States if they would be at risk of developing the syndrome.

Given that the syndrome is recognized internationally; that lengthy delays are inherent to the criminal justice system and not necessarily the product of inmates manipulating the appellate process; that ignoring the syndrome can result in the execution of incompetent inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and that the syndrome, like mental illnesses in general, can limit the exercise of free will necessary to make rational decisions, courts should specifically consider the impact of death row syndrome, as well as other mental illnesses, on the motivations of inmates when determining their competency to waive their right to appeal. …

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