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December 20, 2016

New report spotlights that majority of condemned Oregon murderers have mental impairments

In this post earlier this year, I noted the initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  And, as regular readers now know, FPP is now regularly producing notable reports and research on the administration of various sentencing systems in various parts of the nation.  The latest report from FPP is titled "Oregon’s Death Penalty Disproportionately Used Against Persons with Significant Mental Impairments," and here are parts of the start and heart of the document:

Oregon retains capital punishment mostly as an exorbitantly expensive legal fiction. In practice, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently noted, the State falls on the abolitionist “side of the ledger” because “Oregon has suspended the death penalty and executed only two individuals in the past 40 years.”  More revealing still: Over the past 10 years, Oregon juries have imposed an average of just one death sentence per year, which translates into less than 1.25% of homicides, a rate far lower than that which prevailed nationally in 1972 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White concluded that the infrequent use of the death penalty meant that the punishment had “ceas[ed] to be a credible deterrent or measurably to contribute to any other end of punishment in the criminal justice system.”  By all functional measures, Oregonians have abandoned the death penalty.

And yet, 35 condemned inmates remain on Oregon’s death row. What do we know about those people, and about the quality of justice that resulted in their death sentences?  This report examines the cases of the condemned men and women in Oregon to see how they ended up there, and what patterns, if any, emerged.  We examined legal pleadings and opinions, trial testimony, and media reports, and consulted with several legal experts in Oregon who are familiar with the individuals on death row.

Here’s what we found: In Oregon, two-thirds of death row inmates possess signs of serious mental illness or intellectual impairment, endured devastatingly severe childhood trauma, or were not old enough to legally purchase alcohol at the time the offense occurred.  The pervasiveness of these crippling impairments among Oregon’s death row population is important because though all murders are gruesome and deserving of serious sanction, the Constitution limits the death penalty to the most heinous murders; and even then only when the person who commits the crime is someone who appears to be more culpable than the typically developing adult....

Our research indicates that approximately one-quarter of individuals on Oregon’s death row may have some form of intellectual disability or brain damage. Nine of the 35 (26%) presented evidence of significantly impaired cognitive functioning as evidenced by low IQ scores, frontal lobe damage, and fetal alcohol syndrome....

Approximately one out of every four individuals on Oregon’s death row exhibits symptoms of mental illness, or has a confirmed diagnosis. Some exhibited signs of psychotic disorders with delusions and hallucinations at the time of the crime, one had been in a state run treatment program for individuals with mental illness, and another had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, the vast majority of the individuals exhibiting signs of mental illness, also presented evidence of secondary impairments such as intellectual disability, extreme childhood trauma, and youthfulness....

[A]pproximately one-third of Oregon’s death row prisoners suffered some form of severe childhood or emotional trauma. One individual was born in prison, another suffered childhood sexual abuse, and several of the individuals were in and out of the foster care system. In many cases, this trauma led to, or was compounded by, other disabilities, such as fetal alcohol syndrome. 

December 20, 2016 at 06:01 PM | Permalink


Prof. Berman's academic performance is 100% brain based. He should not receive his half decent salary and high level of respect because it was mostly involuntary, and he had diminished responsibility in achieving it. Sure he worked hard, but so did the criminal.

Mental illnesses increase dangerousness. So the incapacitation purpose of the criminal law must be applied doubly if public safety if the aim, and not other lawyer games. If any mental condition reduces culpability in a retributionist world, then high brain function should reduce compensation.

Same goes for the pitcher, who is one in 100,000 people, who can pitch at 96 mph. Same for composers that wrote songs beloved by millions of people.

Criminal conduct is no more nor less biologically based than any other. It is no more or less a product of effort than any other.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 20, 2016 7:45:53 PM

David, you are completed deluded if you truly believe one word of what you have written. I'm sure there must be a blog somewhere where similar minded persons congregate, but this is not one of them happily. You offend, not inform or contribute usefully to any debate. Go and join federalist (that is, if you are not he in disguise and he will accept you). This nonsense is tiresome.

Posted by: peter | Dec 21, 2016 5:58:09 AM

What did I write that is not true?

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 21, 2016 8:54:01 PM

One of four random pedestrians will have a major mental illness if interviewed well.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 23, 2016 3:28:59 PM

To kill someone for committing a serious crime is a killing. Quit calling it an "execution" or "death penalty". The Sixth Commandment forbids killing. America wants this Y'all Can Exception. If the state does the killing it is done by all of you who are citizens. So, when you get your interview with Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates and you are asked about your killing of humans back in your home State of Texas you will have to give a good reason. Otherwise it is straight to Hell in a handbasket.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Dec 23, 2016 7:38:04 PM

Lib: 30 Biblical exhortations to kill. You need to start listening to the Word of God.


Posted by: David Behar | Dec 24, 2016 9:13:23 AM

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