Executing the then-sane but now-insane

The recent goings-on concerning Michael Ross have me wondering on a certain issue.

Ross is a serial murderer who killed eight women in the 1980s. He was convicted of the crimes and sentenced to die in Connecticut. He dropped all appeals and was doing everything in his power to move the process forward so that he could die. Several outside parties raised challanges to the execution on the grounds that Ross was not competent. All the challanges were eventually put aside. However, now at the last minute, Ross has decided that he does not want to be executed and will be examined by a psychiatrist to determine his competency.

My question is this: There is no doubt that Ross was competent when he committed the crimes. There is no doubt of his guilt. There is also no doubt of his competence at the time of his trial. That being said, suppose he went insane last week and is now no longer competent, why should that be a bar to his punishment? What is it about executing the insane that is so taboo, provided that at the time of the crime and his trial he was competent?

Zev Steinhardt

Well, there is the issue of what is the benefit to society of executing an insane man?

There are three common arguments in favor of capital punishment. First, retribution. Second, the protection of society from future violent acts by the criminal. Third, deterrence.

If Ross is truly insane, it pretty much knocks out the first two arguments in this case. It may be a matter of perception, but personally, the retributive benefits of punishing a man who may no longer be able to conceptualize why he is being punished pales.

Second, while there may be an argument that society needs to have the ultimate protection from a sane man with evil and violent intent, the same argument does not hold for an insane man, whether or not the insane man tends to violence. In such a case, the issue really becomes one of eugenics.

That leaves deterrence. IMO, the deterrent benefits of capital punishment are not affected by the mental status of the criminal at the time of execution. So this rationale is still valid. However, two questions arise. First, as a matter of fact, does capital punishment have an actual deterrent value? The evidence is that is does not. Second even if there is an actual deterrent value to capital punishment, is that rationale alone sufficient to support execution, if the execution will have no retributive or protection value? That, of course, is a moral judgment for each person.


Thank you for your response, Sua. It helps somewhat, but still leaves me with some questions.

I will use your three reasons for the death penalty as a guide for my questions.

  1. Punishment (retribution)

Normally, the purpose of punishment is to teach someone not to do something. If my kid does something wrong and I send him to his room, I’m not doing it because I want him in his room - I want him there so that he will (hopefully) learn the lesson not to do what he did again. Under this paradigm, your argument makes sense. It doesn’t make sense to send an insane person to jail (his room, so to say) if he’s not going to learn his lesson from it.

With the death penalty, however, that is not the case. We don’t want the condemned to “learn his lesson” because we’re executing him. Under this paradigm, then, punishment of the now-insane still makes sense.

  1. Protection

I would think that the same argument that applies to the death penalty as a whole still applies here as well, regardless of the sanity of the convict. If you’re going to use the argument that when he is in prson then he is out of society, then the same applies when he is insane. If you are going to execute using the argument that he might escape or kill a guard or another convict, then the same logic applies to him when he is insane as well, and should be executed just the same.

  1. Deterrence

This argument, too, is really the same whether or not the criminal is sane or insane. The deterrence value, I would think, is the same either way.

Zev Steinhardt

Zev, punishment and retribution are not quite the same thing. While they have some shared elements, retribution is closer to revenge than to punishment. Personally, I think that revenge inflicted on someone who may not understand why you are seeking revenge isn’t very satisfying.

As for protection, a violently insane person, who is not a convicted murderer, may also escape from a psychiatric facility and/or kill a guard or fellow patient at the facility. We do not deem it worth the protective benefits to execute that fellow. So there is a difference.


I understand and accept your distinction, but I was always under the impression that the purpose of prison was punishment, not retribution. We’re not a retributive nation (or so I would like to believe)/

But there’s one important distinction. Your random violent psychiatric person did not commit a string of murders while sane. Ross did. That’s an important enough distinction why we should execute Ross despite his current insanity and why we should not execute violently psychotic patients who have not committed murders while sane.
Zev Steinhardt

I am very much against the death penalty, so be aware that I’m coming at this from a biased perspective.

That being said, I don’t see any difference between executing the sane and the insane. People get to have their revenge. Society is protected. And it makes it pointless for someone to try to cry off at the last minute with an insanity plea.

Well, of course, the whole debate is predicated on the acceptance of the death penalty to begin with. If you don’t accept the death penalty, then Ross shouldn’t be executed no matter what.

Well, I am making a distinction for people who were insane at the time they committed the crime or at their trial. If insane when the crime was committed, one could argue that they weren’t responsible for their actions, and if insane at the trial, one could argue that the defendant did not really get a chance to defend himself himself in court. But since both of those conditions were met WRT Ross, I don’t see any point in not executing him now that he claims to be insane at the time of execution.

Zev Steinhardt

I disagree with SuaSponte on a number of things. I don’t know if the three arguments he (she?) cites are the most commonly used but I’ll take his word for it. I for one am surprised that “Justice” isn’t represented. Also note that I am vehemently against the death penalty. Using SuaSponte’s arguments:

  1. Retribution: This is an argument that the DP is intended as a catharsis for society. Its up to society to decide this one. If I were for the death penalty, I would probably still think he should be executed but there is certainly an argument against

  2. Protection: You certainly can’t say that an insane man who killed when he was sane is any less of a threat than a murderer who is still sane. Don’t see how this argument can remotely be justified. This argument would have to favor the death penalty for the recently insane.

  3. Deterrence: This is by far the best argument for continuing with the execution.
    If they don’t, they risk death row inmates attempting to fake insanity for a stay of execution.

The only good argument against the DP for the newly insane is “Punishment.” Punishment is an attempt to teach someone the consequence of their actions, even if in this case, the offender can no longer apply what he’s learned. If the offender can’t understand that his punishment is a specific consequence of a previous act, I think it loses it’s “point,” however futile that point is in the concrete.

“he” :wink:


I know that is the distinction you were making. To me, though, if we look at why we might think the DP is justified for anyone, it seems that it is justified for the insane as well as the sane. It does the same things, regardless of the sanity of the one put to death. It gives closure/vengeance/retribution, it removes the dangerous one, and it makes certain that no one thinks to get off easy by claiming insanity.

If I were pro-DP, I can’t see why I would be anti-DP for insane people. That’s all.

Because one of the foundations of our laws is that in order for a person to be guilty of a crime, he must be competent to understand that what he is doing is wrong. Absent that, he cannot be guilty of a crime.

Likewise, a person has the right to face his accusers in open court and defend himself. If he is not capable of defending himself, then he cannot be found guilty. Would you try and convict a man in a coma?

Zev Steinhardt

But we’re obviously talking about someone who has been and is convictable of murder. If someone can’t be convicted of murder, whether they would get the DP is immaterial. I’m talking about once someone is convicted of murder.

OK. Then, in that case, putting aside your general anti-death penalty position, we agree on the matter of Ross.

Zev Steinhardt

Hurm. So, if he was murderous when sane, & now his very grip on reality is going, why exactly are we keeping him alive? I mean, even from a Kantian-humanistic point of view he’s slipping from humanness, from a utilitarian point of view he’s a nuisance at best & a menace if freed, & from an eco-centric point of view he’s just a sad little monkey who can contribute little to the world from his miserable little cage.

You know, I choose eugenics. He’s a useless eater at this point, sane or mad. Kill him whether he likes it or not.

In this age, a lot of problems would get solved if we started asking, “Why keep this person alive?” rather than “Why kill this person?” :rolleyes:

Another point that hasn’t been brought up. A convicted murderer has the right of appeal in the courts. Someone who is insane can’t assist in their defense at that point, thus the execution should be postponed while they are insane.

Ross has been waiving his appeals for years. No one questioned his competency then.

Zev Steinhardt

Maybe because he was sane back then, but just recently went crazy.

I’m sure you’ll feel differently if/when someone decides you’re a “useless eater”. If you do not take it as a given that we have some higher purpose, that could be synonymous with “human being”. I think we can agree that Ross, at least, is a human being, and that status demands some respect, even for someone who could say something as awful as your comment.

I’m not convinced Ross is insane. His decision is, if you ask me, perfectly sane, given that he’s come to recognize that death is preferable to the unmitigated cruelty of years of sensory derpivation and solitary confinement, 23-hours out of every day. I appreciate what his defenders are trying to do for him, but since they can’t save him, I wish they would simply let the tortured wretch die.

As for a bona fide madman, I couldn’t put it better than Sua. The dubious purpose of execution is to exact revenge and deter. It’s impossible to do either to someone who is legally insane, that person being, by defnition, incapable of recognizing the wrongness of their crime.

Here’s an update, for anyone who’s interested: Ross’s lawyer has withdrawn as Ross’s lawyer, citing a conflict of interest. Ross’s execution is now on indefinite hold. The COI apparently came about after a federal judge took it upon himself to threaten Ross’s lawyer with grievance proceedings if the lawyer didn’t file papers saying that Ross’s competency is in question. The judge said something to the effect of “I’ll have your law license” which is complete bullshit because he has no authority to yank someone’s license. Additionally, both the Second Circuit Ct. of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court had overruled the trial judge so he was really way out of line, IMHO. As I understand it, the basis for questioning Ross’s competency at this point in time is a claim that he suffers from “death row syndrome” but none of the psychiatrists who’ve actually examined him have reached that conclusion.

Now, some Connecticut legislators have written the Senate Judiciary Committee asking for an investigation of the judge. There was a transcript of the conference in which the judge threatened the lawyer at www.ctnow.com but I don’t know if it’s still up. Also, that site requires registration.

On a somewhat related note, 5 of the other 7 death row inmates have started a hunger strike in protest of their living conditions. I’m not quite sure what to make of death row inmates staging a hunger strike…

The fourth common justification for punishment is “rehabilitation.” Clearly this does not apply for the death penalty, as you note:

Generally, all seizure, imprisonment, striking, torture, fines, etc., are “punishment,” which we are often concerned with justifying (in whole or in part) in order to have a just society, legal system, or even interpersonal relationships. The justifications for punishment needn’t necessarily apply to every instance of punishment.

Sometimes, “deterrence” is broken up into individual deterrence, ensuring the violator will not commit the violation again, and general deterrence, which would be punishing one perpetrator in hopes of discouraging others from committing the same act. From a legal perspective, you’d probably only bump up against the second. From a parental perspective, you’d probably only bump up against the first.