The Catholic University of America

Executed by lethal injection for a murder he committed as a minor, Johnny Frank Garrett believed that only one of his multiple personalities was going to meet his death.

The Death Penalty and Mental Illness

As Americans continue to debate the morality of the death penalty with no ultimate consensus in sight, it is helpful to review some of the statistics relevant to the arguments on both sides.

States with the death penalty: 38

States without it: 12

Total number of executions so far in 2005: 4

Total number of executions in U.S. since 1976: 948

Race of defendants executed: White 58%; Black 34%; Hispanic 6%; Other 2%.

Number of defendants executed who suffered from severe mental illness at the time their crimes were committed: unknown.

Almost no one who is well versed in the issues surrounding the death penalty would deny that America has sometimes - perhaps even frequently - executed criminals who suffered from clinical, diagnosable mental disorders during the commission of their crimes. The question is what to do about it. Although the Supreme Court ruled the execution of mentally retarded people unconstitutional a few years ago, the proper handling of defendants suffering from schizophrenia and other brain or behavioral disorders has been less clear. Thus far, Connecticut is the only state to prohibit the execution of people with mental illness.

At podium: Ronald Honberg

"The Death Penalty and Mental Illness," a half-day symposium organized and sponsored by The Catholic University Law Review on January 26, brought together some of the leading voices in the field to debate, explore and expand the discussion about this often- overlooked aspect capital punishment. The six panelists assembled in the Walter A. Slowinski Courtroom represented advocacy groups, academia and the fields of psychiatry, law and public policy.

Ronald Honberg, director of legal affairs for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, noted that evidence of mental illness is often not presented to juries tasked with considering a sentence of death, and even when it is, jurors are not qualified to make judgments about what extent the disorder did or did not play in the crime.

"We ask jurors to perform an impossible task," he said, when they are expected to perform the role of doctor or psychiatrist in the jury box. Honberg pointed out that since many defendants accused of capital crimes are too mentally ill to even recognize their impairment, they can't fully understand the consequence of the death sentence itself.

Case in point: Johnny Frank Garrett. Convicted of raping and stabbing a nun to death at the age of 17, Garrett was tried and sentenced in Texas and executed by lethal injection in 1992 at the age of 28. Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist with the New York University School of Medicine, author of the book "Guilty By Reason of Insanity," and a symposium panelist, interviewed and assessed Garrett at length while he waited on death row. Her diagnosis: Garrett suffered from multiple personality disorder, a widely misunderstood but very real disorder that is often mistaken for something else. Garrett had at least two other distinct personalities that took turns dominating his mind, body and voice, and he believed that someone else named Aaron had actually murdered the nun. Garrett also appeared to think that a personality calling itself Aunt Barbara would actually receive the lethal injection needle and take his place to die.

Is there a moral justification for state-sanctioned execution of criminals who have little or no hold at all on reality? There is no unarguable answer, but the Law Review symposium was an important step toward moving the discussion forward.

Garrett's handwriting samples (below) demonstrated what is nearly impossible for sane people to do: his style changed radically as various personalities ascended in his mind.