Saturday, July 2, 2005
Nearly lost amid the discussion of the
“Ten Commandments” cases was the Supreme Court’s June 27 5-4 ruling in Bell
v. Thompson (Case No. 04-514).
In 1985, Gregory Thompson abducted a Tennessee woman from a parking lot, forced her to drive to a remote location, then stabbed her to death. Thompson’s attorneys offered no evidence during the guilt phase of his trial, and they did not focus on his mental problems during sentencing. Thompson was convicted and sentenced to death, and his state appeals failed. His federal habeus attorneys retained a psychologist, Dr. Sultan, who concluded that Thompson suffered from serious mental illness when he committed the crime. Thompson's habeas counsel failed to include Dr. Sultan’s deposition and report in the record, however. The district court dismissed Thompson’s habeus petition, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari.
Justice Breyer’s dissent also is striking for its emphasis on a psychotic disorder’s potential importance in mitigating a death sentence. This is especially relevant following the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), which barred execution for a class of individuals based on a psychiatric diagnosis — mental retardation. The impact of mental retardation on a person’s functional capacities was the basis for the majority’s reasoning in Atkins. At least three law review articles (listed below) have suggested that Atkins may pave the way for additional exemptions from capital punishment based on psychiatric conditions.
Christopher Slobogin, What Atkins Could Mean for People with Mental Illness, 33 N.M. L. Rev. 293 (2003).
John H. Blume and Sheri Lynn Johnson, Killing the Non-willing: Atkins, the Volitionally Incapacitated, and the Death Penalty, 55 S.C. L. Rev. 93 (2003).
Douglas Mossman, Atkins v. Virginia: A Psychiatric Can of Worms, 33 N.M. L. Rev. 293 (2003).