Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Defendant Who Initiates an Appeal of His Death Sentence Can Not Later Waive the Appeal, Even Though He Has Been Found Competent and His Waiver Is Determined to Be Voluntary

Magazine article Developments in Mental Health Law

Defendant Who Initiates an Appeal of His Death Sentence Can Not Later Waive the Appeal, Even Though He Has Been Found Competent and His Waiver Is Determined to Be Voluntary

Article excerpt

Although not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2004), two mental health-related syndromes have been identified by some mental health professionals as germane to prison inmates awaiting execution.

One of these, referred to as "Death Row Syndrome," focuses on the lengthy period, often over a decade, between the sentencing and execution of death row inmates. It has been asserted that the uncertainty over the date of execution, the isolation associated with placement on "death row," and the anxiety of anticipated execution results in a sharp deterioration of mental capacity and can make inmates suicidal, delusional, and severely mentally ill. See Death Penalty Information Center, Time on Death Row (2006), at http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?& did=1397.

Another identified mental disorder, "Segregated Housing Unit Syndrome," targets the restrictive housing in which condemned inmates are typically placed. This syndrome has been described as a collection of psychological symptoms experienced by inmates confined, particularly for lengthy periods of time, in cells with little social interaction or other sensory stimulus. Comer v. Stewart, 230 F. Supp. 2d 1016 (D. Ariz. 2002).

Because an inmate awaiting execution may be suffering from a severe mental disorder, the competency of inmates who direct their attorneys not to pursue appeals on their behalf so they can be executed has been questioned.

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court rejected an application by an inmate's mother to stay execution after the inmate directed his attorneys not to appeal his conviction or sentence. The mother had claimed to be acting as her son's "next friend," a legal designation that would permit her to pursue judicial action on her son's behalf. The Court, however, determined that she could be afforded this role only if the inmate was unable to litigate his own cause due to mental incapacity, lack of access to the court, or a similar legal disability. After concluding that the inmate had made a knowing and intelligent waiver of his right to appeal, the Court ruled that the mother lacked standing (i.e., legal status) to pursue her request and dismissed her application for a stay. The inmate was subsequently executed. Gilmore v. Utah, 429 U.S. 1012 (1976).

In 1990, the Court similarly dismissed a request by a death row inmate seeking to challenge the validity of the sentence imposed on a fellow death row inmate, concluding that the latter had knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily chosen to not appeal his conviction and sentence. Whitmore v. Arkansas, 495 U.S. 149 (1990).

The Ninth Circuit, however, has distinguished these rulings and determined that the attorney of a death row inmate can pursue a pending appeal on behalf of the inmate, even when the inmate competently and voluntarily waives his right to this appeal. The court reasoned that permitting the State to execute an inmate without any meaningful appellate review of his previously filed appeal would amount to a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.

The inmate had been convicted of capital murder in a state court proceeding in 1988. After unsuccessfully pursuing a series of state and federal appeals, in 1998 the inmate sent a letter to the state trial court judge stating that he no longer wanted his appeal to be heard and that he wanted to die, and subsequently filed a motion to dismiss his appeal. His court-appointed attorney opposed this motion. At the time, the inmate had pending an appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit ordered a federal district court judge to hold a hearing on whether (1) the inmate was competent to "fire" his attorney and waive legal review, and (2) his decisions were involuntary because of the conditions of his confinement.

At this hearing, held in 2002, the judge heard testimony from a mental health expert presented by the inmate's attorney that the inmate was incompetent and suffered from a Major Depressive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Segregated Housing Unit Syndrome. …

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