Executing the no longer insane

There is a law against executing someone who is insane.
A man imprisoned for life with an insanity plea has been rendered sane as long as he takes a drug. The state now wants to execute him since he is sane.
This seems backwards to me. Why can you execute him when he becomes sane? He was insane when he committed the crime. Is the purpose of execution to make the guy realize what is going to happen and suffer?

Although I understand what you’re getting at, it’s important to make the legal distinction between sanity and competency. Sanity applies at the time of the criminal act: typically, if a person wasn’t able to understand the nature of his actions or the difference between right and wrong, he will be not guilty of the crime charged and won’t get the death penalty at all, although he may be confined to a mental institution for life.

Competency, on the other hand, is determined at the time of trial, or in this case execution. A different standard applies for competency; typically, the person needs to have an understanding of what is happening to him. You can be legally sane at the time of trial and legally incompetent to be executed at the time of execution.

Is this a hypothetical or is there an actual case. The reason I ask is, accepting your OP at face value, it sounds like the man pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, and now the State wants to resentence him to death. I’ve never heard or seen of that happening, in fact, I cannot imagine it ever happening as the OP describes. So, I guess this long post boils down to: Cite?

I believe you have the facts wrong, assuming you are referring to a recent ruling. The guy was sane at the time he committed the crime, and only subsequently became insane.

Personally I have no qualms at all about executing the guy in his insane state, so I see it as a non-issue.

link: State Can Make Inmate Sane Enough to Execute, Court Rules

Yes, he was sentenced to death and certified to be insane later.

The CNN version indicates he was first sentenced to life:


Yeah I read that one too. I don’t think this is the last we’ve heard of it; let’s see how this plays out.

If he had been found insane, during his trial, he would have been innocent and would probably have gone to an institution. This changes the assumption of the OP drastically. If someone gets deathly sick and faints during the walk to his execution, he would be taken to the hospital to recuperate and then executed. So, if he is insane and recovers, what is the difference? :confused:

From today’s NYT:

In 1979 Mr. Singleton killed a grocery store clerk in Arkansas. He was sentenced to death that year.

In 1986, the Supremes decided that executing the insane was cruel and unusual.

In 1987, Mr. Singleton formed the opinion that he was possessed by demons and that a prison doctor had implanted a device in his ear.

Our choices are:

Give him anti-psychotics, then lethal injection.

Don’t give him anti-psychotics, but don’t execute him, following the Supreme Court’s bar on executing the insane.

I suppose there are other choices. As for myself, if a side-effect of anti-psychotic medication is death by lethal injection, it seems to me to be unethical for a doctor to prescribe that medicine. But I confess that I am not familiar with the finer points of medical ethics.

Well, I am opposed to the death penalty completely, as I don’t believe that you can portray the idea that “Killing is wrong” by killing someone.

However, I think there should be some consistency. There should be no distinction between insane and not. If you are going to kill someone for a crime committed then kill EVERY person that committed that crime. I believe every murderer has some sort of extenuating circumstances that led them to their current path. I don’t think they are born murderers, therefore I feel that it is logically inconsistant to not kill people who are insane.

Now normally I am not a fan of consistancy within policy. However, I believe that we should be opposed to cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, if we are opposed to cruel and unusual punishment, then the death penalty is not really a punishment so much as a removal from society. If it is a punishment, then it is cruel and unusual no matter how you slice it, and no amount of spin on it will change the fact that it’s terrifying to be able to count the minutes until you will be dead. So if it is for the sake of societal “revenge” or to strike fear into the hearts of would be murderers, then in my mind it falls under cruel and unusual punishment. However, if the motive is to remove a danger to society, from society, then that is a much more just motive, and isn’t there for that purpose, so we should execute them insane or not, as we would put down a rabid dog.

But as I started my statement, we should have no death penalty to begin with.


The insanity thing is all BS. If you weren’t insane, take the needle. If you were insane enough to murder someone, etc., then we need to be rid of you. If you weren’t insance then, but you are now, too bad.

Before you discount the insanity defense altogether, think about what it is really saying. An insanity defense only applies (in most states) when you can’t:

1: distinguish between right and wrong, or
2: appreciate the nature of your actions.

This is a very, very high standard, to the point that the insanity defense almost never works. For example, a guy who thought he was washing a head of lettuce but was actually drowning the baby, or a guy who thought he was killing a demon who was attacking him might be able to avail themselves of the insanity defense. “I robbed the bank because I’m crazy” won’t cut it if you knew you robbed the bank and you knew it was wrong to do so. You can be, to use the medical term, batshit crazy and still not be insane under the legal definition, e.g. Andrea Yates.

The insanity defense doesn’t let people who commit crimes off the hook, it allows for a defense for people whose mental state is so far divorced from reality that it has virtually negated the criminal state of mind necessary to commit the crime, just like you can’t be found guilty for stealing an umbrella that you picked up because you thought was your own. The point isn’t that we aren’t treating everyone who commits a crime the same, the point is that without a certain requisite mental state, no crime has been commited.

Now, if you just plain think that people who are that out of it should be “put down” like a rabid dog would be because we as a society need to be rid of them regardless of any lack of fault on their part, well, I suppose that’s a different argument.

Pravnik -

I actually do understand the insanity defense, and I believe you’ve stated the concept behind it quite eloquently in layman’s terms. I don’t say that lightly – I’m a psychiatrist.

However, the “insanity” defense works quite a bit more frequently than you seem to think. Particularly if the attorney is clever enough to avoid a jury trial and instead deal with a judge who is overly concerned with not having decisions reversed and is thus far more willing to hair-split the letter of the law.

Additionally, the “insanity defense” does PRECISELY let people who commit crimes off the hook, despite what you assert. They do NOT suffer consequences of an order even approaching those suffered by folks who commit the same crime and are not judged insane.

My point was, as you’ve guessed, closer to your final paragraph. If you’re so “batshit crazy” that you drown the baby but think you’re washing the lettuce, then I think you should be put down EXACTLY like a rabid dog – as a danger and menace society cannot afford to accommodate. And while I suspect you put it that way to make it seem a bit extreme or inhuman, I actually don’t mind the analogy.

I do NOT agree that there’s a “lack of fault” on their part, however. In all my years of practice, both privately and in institutions, I’ve never run across anyone so truly insane that they truly have no concept of right or wrong or are totally unable to appreciate their actions. I’ve run across plenty of people with distinctly severe mental health issues who are nevertheless sane enough to KNOW they can try to use it as a foil to avoid culpability, though.

A couple issues that commonly DO arise and my thoughts:

  1. Those who are cogent while medicated but dangerously incoherent when not, who quit taking their medication and thus seek to avoid consequences for acts committed while unmedicated… Tough. These people are UNIFORMLY aware of what happens to them when not medicated and made a rational choice to not medicate themselves. Go to jail, Do not pass go, insert needle, goodbye.

  2. Those who claim “temporary insanity”. Nonsense. Caveat situation 1 above, non-medicateable mental disorders of the degree required to avoid consequences are neither temporary nor “curable.” If you’re sane now, you were sane then.

Having said this, if there was a case of a person who was truly unable to distinguish these issues I would A) be very surprised and B) be willing to skip the death penalty for them provided they were permanently remanded to a psychiatric prison facility with no chance of release, ever. Someone in that state would be totally beyond any ability we have to ‘cure’ them.

As an aside: If I don’t sound like a prototypical “mental health pro”, that’s because I’m anonymous here and I’m being honest with you… Didya see “Analyze This”? The scene where Billy Crystal fantasizes about telling his patients to “shut up and quit whining” then gives them some straight talk instead of psycho-babble? Trust me, most of us feel roughly the same way.

A hijack, but hey, it’s my thred. :slight_smile:

How do they get psychiatrists to testify in court counter to what you expressed above?

I have to respectfully disagree that the insanity defense is widely used. Just about any lawyer you talk to will tell you that despite a widely held misconception to the contrary, the insanity defense is rarely used and rarely successful, and the statistics back them up. A study funded by NIMH and reported in the Bulletin of the American Acadamy of Psychiatry and the Law in the 90’s reported that out of an eight state sample the insanity defense was invoked in less than one percent of cases, and successful about 1/4 of the time. The American Acadamy of Psychiatry has said that in 80% of cases where a “not guilty by reason of insanity” accquital is reached it’s due to the agreement of the prosecution and defense on the appropriateness of the plea before trial. Most studies over the last 20 years have shown that sucessful insanity pleas account for around 0.2% of terminated felonies.

Speaking from a personal point of view, many people would agree that an insanity defense lets people who have committed crimes off the hook, including a lot of mental health professionals like yourself. Speaking strictly from a legal point of view, though, in most states it doesn’t. It deems that due to their state of mind at the time of the allegedly criminal act, they don’t bear criminal responsibility for what they have done and are by law “not guilty.” I understand you’re stating in your professional opinion the insanity defense allows people who should be guilty of crimes to be found otherwise, but legally speaking they aren’t guilty of a crime. Of course, legally speaking, O.J. Simson wasn’t guilty of any crime either.

I can field some of that. First, the defense would find an expert with a different opinion; second, expert testimony is limited by the rules of evidence.

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence and many states’ evidence codes, a mental health professional can offer his opinions on the general mental condition of a defendant and the observations they have made in that regard, but they can’t testify as to whether or not a criminal defendant had the mental state necessary to commit the crime. In other words they can say “this person suffers generally from paranoid schizophrenia” but they can’t come out and say “this person does/does not meets the legal definition of insanity.” Whether or not a person was insane at the time of a crime is a matter of whether the facts of the case merit a finding that the person was insane under the law, and for the expert to testify to it would be testimony that reaches an “ultimate issue” of the case that invades the province of the jury.

Yeah, Pravnik is right: I can definitely concur on item 1 (2 I dunno so much). There’s a wide range of opinion in the psychiatric community and attorneys generally “shop” for someone who’s going to lean the way they want.

I’ve done it a few times, and guess what – always for the prosecution. Shocker.

-note to self: do not seek psychiatric help from DrLizardo-


Except for Oregon, isn’t it illegal in most states for doctors to administer medicine if the direct result will cause the death of the patient, even if said medicine causes a very sort term positive effect? Could a doctor give medication to a patient if she or he knew that it would cause the patient to die very sortly thereafter? Could the patient’s family sue the doctor and the institution afterwards for wrongful death?
Or is “I was just following orders.” now a justified defence?

Or maybe the guy just has to take the stuff orally.
Then your arguement would apply to the Physician prescribing the medication.
Never mind.