Washington Sniper Seeks Clemency With Mental Illness Argument To Halt Nov 10th Execution

At this point, it's pretty late in the legal game for John Muhammad, known as The Washington Sniper.  Tried and sentenced to death for the killing of Dean Meyers, the victim of a sniper's bullet at a Manassas, Virginia gas station in 2002, Muhammad has already exhausted appellate avenues aside from the United States Supreme Court.  His attorneys have announced they'll be filing an appeal with the Supreme Court on or before November 3rd.

Asking for Clemency Now Rather than Later

Usually, going to the Governor with a clemency request wouldn't happen until all the court remedies had been exhausted.  With the Washington Sniper, the strategy is different.  Already, his attorneys have met with Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine -- and they've shown the governor a video prepared to support their position.

Mental Illness as a Bar to the Death Penalty

There is already precedent from the United States Supreme Court (Ford v. Wainwright) holding that the mentally ill cannot be condemned to die because it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. 

Why urge clemency with the Governor's Office now?

At the Devine, Connell, Sheldon & Flood website, defense counsel have posted their arguments in the unusual clemency request: 

  • 1.  a juror has said they would not have voted for death if they had known of Muhammad's mental illness; 

  • 2.  experts report that the Washington Sniper suffers from severe mental illness, and this is documented by his brain damage, brain dysfunction, and other neurological deficits as well as his psychotic and delusional behavior; 

  • 3.  he may additionally suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. 

According to media reports, the Governor hasn't been that open to considering clemency for the Washington Sniper -- he's said so, and his office has also leaned on the standard operating procedure of clemency considerations occuring only after judicial review is finished.  

It's an interesting and aggressive tactic that the Sniper's defense counsel is taking.  For all of us that oppose the death penalty, we're rooting for 'em.

In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 3

Progressive postpartum depression is one of the least recognized diseases suffered by young mothers despite the fact that almost 80% of women who give birth experience some form of postpartum upset. Although this symptom picture is well described in the research literature, postpartum depression is not recognized in the mental health professional's legal "bible," the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition ("DSM IV"). [20] The symptoms of postpartum depression may masquerade as manic-depression (bipolar disorder). Periods of euphoria, agitation, sleeplessness, sexual promiscuity, and hyperactivity characterize the manic symptoms. Poor judgment is a result. [21]

Progressive Postpartum Depression and Psychosis

A common misperception is that the postpartum depression is nothing more than the "baby blues" and will disappear on its own shortly after childbirth. [22] However, if untreated, the disease can develop into a more severe form, progressive postpartum depression or even psychosis. When this happens, the mother suffers from continued episodes of mania or depression, each one progressively worse than the last. Rejections, separations, and losses often trigger subsequent recurrent episodes. Because of the episodic nature, the woman is often untreated or undiagnosed until a tragedy occurs.

Despite the common misconception that only newborns are at risk from this disease, mothers suffering from the more severe form kill older children. The case of Andrea Yates more than amply illustrates this point.

The Andrea Yates Case

Andrea Yates suffered from postpartum depression, which progressively deepened with each child she had. Andrea cared for her three young boys while her husband worked to support the family. Her husband became involved in a fundamentalist religious group and eschewed material possession, downsizing their home to a mobile home and then a bus. After the birth of her fourth son, she attempted suicide twice before being hospitalized. The birth of her fifth child, a daughter, caused her to become severely depressed and delusional. She was hospitalized and medicated, but Andrea hid her delusions from her doctors and family. She was having conversations with Satan and feared punishment if she told anyone.

On June 20, 2001, Andrea drowned all five of her children to save them from Satan while they were still innocent. She called 911 and then her husband, who had just left for work an hour before. Andrea told him all the children were hurt, and he needed to come home. When Andrea confessed to the murders, she said she loved her children, but not in the "right" way. Andrea thought she was a bad mother because her children were not developing in an academic or righteous sense.

Andrea Yates was charged with capital murder with possible penalty of death. Whether Yates believed she was saving her children from Satan or she was simply overwhelmed with caring for them, the jury found her guilty of murder after deliberating for three and a half hours. The prosecution then sought the death penalty. After only 35 minutes of deliberation, the jury elected a prison sentence for life. [23]

Continued, in part 4 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo. The final part of the series discusses mothers who don't want their children, the Susan Smith case, and the overall treatment of maternal filicide by the American Justice system.

[20] Oberman, supra at 71.
[21] Husman, supra, at 41-42.
[22] Id.
[23] Margaret G. Spinneli, Maternal Infanticide Associated With Mental Illness, 161 Am. J. Psychiatry 1548, 1548 (2004).

In Depth Look: Filicide is Different - 2

Subsequent studies agree with Resnick's Classification of Motives in Maternal Filicide Cases

Subsequent studies have agreed on a commonality of motives in cases of maternal filicide.[8] These motives are: (1) the mother's mental illness, often seen as "pathological," "acutely psychotic," or "mentally ill" killings, (2) lack of bonding with the child, manifested as "neonaticide," "unwanted child," or "ignored pregnancy" deaths, and (3) inadequate parenting, resulting in "accidental," "discipline-related," or "neglect" deaths.

Recent Studies Look Not Only at Motive, but at the Nature of the Mother-Child Relationship

Recent studies focus on more than just the motive, but on the nature of the mother-child relationship. Forensic psychiatric evaluations of women criminally charged with the deaths of their children found the following characterizations of the mother-child relationship: abusive / neglectful mothers, psychotic / depressed mothers, retaliatory mothers, psychopathic mothers, and detached mothers.

Abusive, Psychopathic, or Retaliatory mothers

Abusive / neglectful mothers are unable to set normal behavioral bounds with their child, vacillating from excessive discipline to no discipline. Retaliatory mothers are similar to Resnick's spousal revenge category. The psychopathic mother has an insensitive relationship with their children, using the child to fulfill their own needs.

The detached mother

The detached mother category reflects mothers that have not developed a bond with their child during pregnancy. Researchers talk about the "massive denial" of these women who kill their child. Typically, these mothers deny their pregnancy, often to the point where physical symptoms do not manifest until the actual "surprise" birth. The detached mother may deny the pregnancy out of resentment of the child, a lack of communication within her social network, or a fear of rejection by her family or friends. Interestingly, the families and support systems of these women do not notice the changes in the young woman.

The mother may actually have a dissociative event during childbirth, not remembering the birth or even killing the child at birth. [9] Neonaticide, the killing of a child in the first day of life, may occur if these women give birth in an isolated area or alone. These women were later horrified to find out what they had done.

The psychotic / depressed mother

The psychotic / depressed mother perceives her child through the lens of her particular illness. The illness may be a previously diagnosed clinical disorder, such as schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, or bipolar disorder. The mother may be suffering from a personality disorder, defined as "an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of an individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and lead to distress or impairment." [10] Three personality disorders relevant to filicidal mothers are dependent, antisocial, and borderline personality disorder. Impulsive actions, poor judgment, and instability in personal relationships and self-image characterized borderline personality disorder.

Just as the families did not notice the pregnancy of denial mothers, the families of young women suffering from clinical or personality disorders often ignore "the elephant in the living room" and deny the problem. [11] The result is that these young women are often at risk because they do not get the diagnosis, treatment, and help that they need due to unacknowledged or unrecognized mental disorders.

Mothers with Bipolar Disorder

One such clinical disorder that may go undiagnosed is bipolar disorder.[12] Bipolar disorder usually begins between ages 15 and 30, and some forms are more common in women. [13] Symptoms of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, are extreme mood swings ranging from manic highs to intense lows. [14] Because these mood swings are on a continuum, and may even not appear at times, some people may go undiagnosed because they don't seek treatment, their condition is mistaken for depression, or because their symptoms don't meet current diagnostic criteria. [15] Complicating the picture, bipolar disorder frequently is accompanied by other disorders. [16]

The mood swings may last for weeks, months, or even years. [17] In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, the signs and symptoms include: extreme optimism, inflated self-esteem, poor judgment, agitation, risky behavior, spending sprees, increased sexual drive, decreased need for sleep, and a tendency to be easily distracted. [18] During the depressive phase, it is easy to see how signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder may masquerade as depression: sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or behavior, anxiety, guilt, sleep problems, appetite problems, fatigue, loss of interest in daily activities, problems concentrating, irritability, and chronic pain without a known cause. [19]

Continued, in part 3 ....

This four-part series of posts "Filicide is Different" continues next Friday, as part of Friday's In Depth Look / Friday's Legal Memo. The third part of the series discusses progressive postpartum depression and the Andrea Yates case.

[8] Geoffrey R. McKee, Why Mothers Kill, A Forensic Psychologist's Casebook 28 (2006).
[9] Oberman, supra, at 53.
[10] Oberman, supra, at 71.
[11] Arlene M. Huysman, A Mother's Tears 52 (1998).
[12] Mayo Clinic, Bipolar Disorder, at 4, available at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bipolar- disorder/DS00356/DSECTION=symptoms.
[13] Id.
[14] Id., at 1
[15] Id., at 4.
[16] K. Cauldwell, Living With Bipolar Disorder: One Woman's Journey Through Diagnosis, Understanding, and Acceptance, at 2 http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/106100/living_with_bipolar_disorder_one_womans.html?cat=5.
[17] Id.
[18] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2.
[19] Mayo Clinic, supra, at 2-3.

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