Not Monsters but Men – Finding Humanity on Death Row

May 23, 2017

Katie Niver and Shujaa Graham at Georgetown.

Katie Niver and Shujaa Graham at Georgetown.

Katie Niver and Shujaa Graham at Georgetown.

Looking back, it’s not hard to see why I supported the death penalty. It seemed like a good idea, the right way to punish people who had committed heinous crimes.  The only criminals I ever heard about were those portrayed by the media as monsters, people like Scott Peterson, who killed his pregnant wife, and mass murderers Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. And I assumed everyone on death row was like them. It made sense to me to kill those people because they had done such evil things and showed no remorse. It was easy for me to look at the crimes they committed and think they deserved to die as payback for what they did to someone else.  

This was what I thought until I met a man named Shujaa Graham. He was the speaker on the topic of the injustice of the criminal justice system at a class I took on American law at Georgetown University. Graham is a black man in his 60s, who speaks in a low voice.  He mumbled as he tearfully described how he got into trouble as a kid and later went to jail and then prison, where he was framed for the murder of a prison guard and sentenced to death. Graham was on San Quentin’s Death Row until he was exonerated and freed. He said it had been 20 years since he had been released from prison and he just couldn’t get past it. I had never before met anyone who had been to prison, much less someone who had been on death row. As he spoke, I saw him — a man who had been on death row — as a person, and not as his crimes. I saw his humanity.

When I returned home to California, I shared what I had learned from Graham with teachers and friends. One of my teachers suggested that I read the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which tells the story of a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The book discussed various problems in the criminal justice system. The one that stuck with me the most was the problem of mental illness. I learned from the book about the large numbers of inmates who suffer from mental illness and who are not receiving the treatment they need.

One person who knows firsthand about mental illness in death row inmates is Dr. Pablo Stewart, a forensic psychiatrist who specializes in capital defense. “The mentally ill are treated very poorly in the criminal justice system,” Stewart asserts. Lawyers consult Stewart when their clients are charged with capital crimes. Stewart’s job is to evaluate defendants to see if they suffer from any mental illness and, if so, whether that mental illness had anything to do with the crimes they are charged with.  Some of the mental illnesses Stewart has diagnosed in death row inmates include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness caused by alcohol or drug abuse.

Courtesy of Meg Niver
Forensic psychiatrist, Pablo Stewart


Stewart argues that there is a direct relationship between mental health services and crime: “Because of the lack of mental health services in the community, mentally ill people often commit crimes that they wouldn’t commit if they were getting proper mental health care.” In fact, it is estimated by Mental Health America, that between five to ten percent of people on death row suffer from a severe mental illness. When the mentally ill are sentenced to death for the crimes they committed, conditions in prison, like solitary confinement, can exacerbate the inmate’s mental illness. “If you have a mental illness when you go into solitary confinement, it will make it worse. Even if you don’t have a mental illness and go into solitary confinement, it can cause you to have a mental illness,” said Stewart.

Lawyers who retain expert psychiatrists like Stewart face an uphill battle trying to win relief for their clients, even when they have been diagnosed with a mental illness. “The only recognized diagnosis in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] that makes you ineligible for the death penalty is if you are intellectually disabled or mentally retarded as it used to be called,” said Jennifer Molayem, an attorney with the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in San Francisco who represents death row inmates on appeal. A death row inmate can also avoid execution if he is deemed not competent, but “you can only raise the issue that a client is not competent to be executed once an execution date is set,” according to Molayem. Until then, the inmate, no matter how mentally ill, remains on death row.

Courtesy of Jennifer Molayem
Lawyer for Death Row inmates, Jennifer Molayem


The problems encountered by a mentally ill person in the criminal justice system are particularly significant at trial. There, prosecutors often try to persuade the jury that the defendant is not mentally ill, that he is faking it. If there is credible evidence that the defendant is mentally ill, the prosecutor may try to demonize him by calling him a psychopath or a sociopath.  According to Stewart, these terms are not psychiatric diagnoses. Instead, they are “used to demonize defendants” in front of juries, he says. Moyalem concurs that prosecutors can be unsympathetic to defendants with mental illnesses, adding that they have substantial discretion and power which allows them to file more serious charges against a defendant that are reasonable and that their “desire to win might blind them” to other issues about the defendant.

“Mental illness may not be a defense to the crime, but it is always mitigating. It may not be a reason for a jury to acquit, but it is always a reason for a jury to give life.” – Elisabeth Semel, Director of the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic.

The more I have learned about mental illness and the criminal justice system, the more convinced I have become that it is wrong to put people who are suffering from mental illnesses in prison, instead of giving them the treatment they need. It seems barbaric to execute someone who is mentally ill. No one ever seems to want to admit that defendants are mentally ill. They only talk about the crimes the defendants committed. Instead, they try to demonize them, and it’s obvious why. It is easier to justify killing someone you label as a psychopath than someone who is mentally ill and never got the treatment he needed.

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