In a capital case, there are two times when the issue of the accused’ mental health must be addressed;  first, at the criminal trial where the individual is facing a prosecutor who is seeking the death penalty as punishment upon conviction.  Second, when the convicted Death Row inmate is scheduled for execution.

Three Distinct Mental Health Issues and the Death Penalty

There are three mental health distinctions in the law:  (1) intellectual disability; (2) mental illness; and (3) insanity.  All three are issues of the person’s mental health.

However, each is considered (and treated) differently in the criminal justice system.  Importantly, mental illness is not the same as “insanity” under the law.

Three Issues: Insanity and the Death Penalty

Insanity is considered in a capital case initially when the crime is committed.  Was the accused insane at the time of the event?  If so, he or she may be found not guilty at the criminal trial by “reason of insanity.”

Once the capital case goes to trial, there will be another consideration of the accused’s sanity.  If the judge over the capital case determines that the accused is legally insane, then the trial cannot proceed.  The accused is held to be incompetent to stand trial and the judge stops the trial proceedings.  If and when the accused regains his or her sanity, the trial may resume.

Finally, when the execution is scheduled by the state, the accused’s sanity will again be considered.  Any Death Row inmate found to be insane cannot be executed.  From SCOTUS in Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409-10, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 2602, 91 L. Ed. 2d 335, 346 (1986):

“[T]he natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity is still vivid today. And the intuition that such an execution simply offends humanity is evidently shared across this Nation. Faced with such widespread evidence of a restriction upon sovereign power, this Court is compelled to conclude that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.”

Procedural Example: Markeith Loyd Trial

How this works in a courtroom involves the defense decision to proceed with a mental health defense.  The prosecution does not have the duty here: it is the job of the accused’s defense lawyer to plead and prove the mental health issues that are involved in the case.

As an example. Terry Lenamon has announced to the court in the Markeith Loyd matter that the defense will make these decisions, and institute any necessary filings in the record, on or before March 2020.  For details, read “Markeith Loyd’s attorney says notice of insanity defense could be coming,” written by Adrienne Cutway and published by Click Orlando – WKMG News6 on December 18, 2019.