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Dead Wrong: Capital Punishment, Wrongful Convictions, and Serious Mental Illness

Editor's note: Alexis Carl has been managing our social media for the last six months. We are fortunate to have her and welcome the opportunity to present her article which was awarded the inaugural gold prize for a student paper by the Wrongful Conviction Law Review.

Are innocent persons wrongfully convicted? Yes.

Are there wrongfully convicted persons on death row? Yes.

Have innocent persons been executed? We believe so.

Who is at risk of being wrongfully convicted, given a death sentence, and executed? Persons with serious mental illness.

This project explores the connections between serious mental illness (SMI), wrongful convictions, and capital punishment. Due to the cognitive and volitional impairments associated with SMI, people with SMI are especially vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted of a crime and further wrongfully sentenced to death. The research shows that those with SMI are more likely to: 1) falsely confess; 2) struggle with assisting in their defense; 3) be perceived as an unreliable witness; 4) appear as though they lack remorse; and 5) face prejudices from judges and jurors; which all contribute to wrongful convictions. An explanation of these vulnerabilities are discussed in detail by examining 26 case vignettes (derived from the National Registry of Exonerations and other sources) where such individuals were wrongfully convicted due to SMI. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations is further analyzed, leading to discussion of the disproportionate co-occurrence of wrongful convictions that are stimulated by SMI. Lastly, because of the vulnerabilities persons with SMI face, this paper explores the landmark Supreme Court Case, Atkins v. Virginia, and argues for its application for persons with SMI, as well as provided a discussion on reform and how to enact safeguards to protect individuals with SMI.


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