Washington, DC – Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) launched a national project opposing the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses at a press conference and remembrance ceremony in San Antonio, Texas on October 3.
The initiative builds on a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that eliminate the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and juvenile offenders and raise serious concerns about executing people with severe mental illnesses. A national report on the issue will be released in June 2009, based in part on testimony from family members at San Antonio event.
Amanda and Nick Wilcox, who traveled to the conference from California, said they believe the man responsible for killing their 19-year-old daughter Laura must be held accountable for his actions, “but to execute him for an act he committed while delusional with a severe disease is, to us, simply wrong.”
Lois Robison said she has been waiting almost 25 years for an initiative like the one being launched today. Lois’s son Larry, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was discharged from the hospital because his insurance had run out. Warned that their son was not well and would get worse without treatment, the Robisons continued to seek a hospital placement for him but were told that he would only be admitted if he became violent. After four years without treatment, Larry killed five people. “We were horrified, and terribly distressed for the victims and their families,” Lois sa id. “We thought Larry would finally be committed to a mental institution, probably for life. We were wrong.” Larry was executed in Texas in 2000.
Renny Cushing, director of the national organization Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, said victims have an obvious stake in the death penalty debate. “The people here bring the voice of experience to the question of executing offenders with severe mental illness,” he said. “They have suffered horrendous losses and they are saying that executions are not the answer to the problem of mental illness.”
As the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to helping individuals and families affected by mental illnesses, the National Alliance on Mental Illness agreed to collaborate with the victims’ group because “we believe the execution of individuals with severe mental illness compounds the tragedy of violent crimes and serves no purpose in deterring similar crimes,” said Ron Honberg, the organization’s Legal and Policy Director. “The answer lies not in executing people who struggle with illnesses that are no fault of their own, but rather, in taking steps to prevent crimes from ever occurring.”