The Public Interest

Psychiatry in the courtroom

Douglas Mossman

Winter 2003

OVER the past quarter century, the Supreme Court has increasingly sent the message to the nation’s criminal courts that the imposition of the death penalty must take into account psychiatric evaluations and understandings of mental disorders. After the Court ruled in 1972 that sentencers could not have _untrammeled discretion” in how they imposed the death penalty, some states changed capital punishment statutes to make the death penalty automatic when homicides were committed under specific conditions.  But in rulings issued between 1976 and 1982, the Court declared that this solution was unacceptable: States had to allow the judges and juries who issue death sentences to consider individualized information about each defendant. Sentencers must have the opportunity to learn about aspects of a defendant’s character that might be offered in mitigation, and must weigh these factors when deciding a defendant’s fate. Such mitigating factors include evidence given by mental health professionals of a defendant’s broken home, childhood abuse, or adulthood emotional disturbances.

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