No Death Penalty For Persons With Severe Mental Illnesses

Statement By Laurie M. Flynn, Executive Director National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

Jan 12 1998

NAMI strongly empathizes with those families whose lives are forever changed by the death and destruction allegedly caused by Ted Kaczynski. These needless acts of violence were heinous, senseless and tragic. While people must be held responsible for their actions, we believe the death penalty is never appropriate for a defendant suffering from schizophrenia or other serious brain disorders.

The case of Mr. Kaczynski strikes an all too familiar and painful chord for NAMI families. Many NAMI families are faced with the agony of watching their loved ones deteriorate without being able to do anything about it. While violence is no more common in people receiving medication for schizophrenia than in the general population, family members often have legitimate concerns about potential criminal behavior on the part of their ill family member. In such cases, families also may fear for their own safety, or the safety of the community.

Experts who have examined Mr. Kaczynski and his writings agree that he suffers from schizophrenia, a brain disorder, which typically is characterized by paranoid delusions and severely impaired insight. While the symptoms of serious brain disorders such as schizophrenia can be controlled with medications in most cases, it is not uncommon for persons with this devastating disease to deny their illness or need for treatment. In fact, scientific studies reveal that about half of all persons with schizophrenia do not understand that they are sick and require medical treatment.

NAMI praises David Kaczynski for his courage in turning his brother into the authorities. His decision reflects the agony families experience in balancing their love and support for their family member with their concern for protecting the public's safety.

This case illustrates the fundamental disconnection between law and science. The legal criteria for evaluating crimes committed by persons with severe mental illnesses were developed some 200 years ago. Conversely, medical professionals are able to accurately diagnose schizophrenia and other serious brain disorders due to remarkable scientific discoveries. Scientists also have established that schizophrenia impairs mental capacity in many cases. In view of this progress, a diagnosis of schizophrenia by a qualified medical expert should serve as a reason not to execute a criminal defendant.

NAMI urges Attorney General Janet Reno to reconsider the government's opposition to a plea arrangement in the prosecution of Ted Kaczynski. We oppose the death penalty for persons with severe mental illnesses, and believe it would be cruel, inhumane and barbaric to sentence Mr. Kaczynski to death. If found guilty, he should be sentenced to a lifetime of treatment in a secure, locked facility where he can perpetrate no further harms.

With more than 168,000 members, NAMI is the nation's leading grassroots organization solely dedicated to improving the lives of persons with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. NAMI has more than 1,140 state and local affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Canada.