Tuesday, July 11, 2006



Suicide is a major problem in our society. Annual deaths from suicide hover around 30,000 a year, making suicide a more frequent cause of death than homicide ( a statistic I was shocked to learn yesterday). And assisted suicide is illegal everywhere in the United States; the only exception to this rule is physician assisted suicide in the state of Oregon when an adult patient is suffering from a clearly terminal disease.

But in America we have another form of suicide which goes completely unreported - state-assisted suicide for death penalty "volunteers". In the modern era of executions, more than 10% of those executed have been so-called volunteers, those inmates who drop their appeals and seek to be executed. We had a near volunteer right here in Tennessee last month when Paul Reid attempted to drop his appeals but questions about his mental competency to do so led to a last minute stay of execution. Daryl Holton is scheduled to be executed in September as he attempts to drop his appeals.

Some people like to view this phenomenon as inmates accepting the justice of their sentence, but a very interesting article, John H. Blume, of Cornell Law School, compares volunteering to suicide in the general population and finds that most volunteers match the suicide model rather than the acceptance of justice model. For instance, over 70% of suicides in the general population are committed by white men. Whites represent around half of the death row population, but account for over 80% of all volunteers. Additionally an extremely large percentage of those who commit suicide suffer from substance abuse and mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, severe depression, and bi-polar disorder. These numbers are mirrored on death row; Paul Reid has been diagnosed with schizophrenia (among other things) and Daryl Holton suffers from major depression with psychosis and has a history of suicide attempts. In fact, 87% of death row volunteers through 2004 suffer from either mental illness, substance abuse, or both.

You can read Blume's entire article here, although I warn you, it is fairly long.

The conclusion to be drawn seems clear, volunteers are generally seeking a way to commit suicide, not accepting the justice of their sentence. If this is the case, then determining mental competency (and the threshold for mental incompetency must be adjusted to properly take into account our growing understanding of mental illness) but the motivation of the inmate must be taken into account, as participating in suicide is immoral and illegal. In his article, Blume suggests one possible two-pronged standard to determine whether an inmate should be allowed to drop their appeals. This is certainly a starting point for a terrific discussion that we all need to engage in during the coming months. Are volunteers accepting justice? Or are we seeing a last desperate cry for help from people who have experienced serious emotional trauma, abuse, and mental illness?
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