By Reason of Insanity
Daniel was said to be a gentle gaint in high school. His friends all said great things about him. If Daniel were tring to dump off a bridge he'd have everybody he knew there trying to stop him. No one was trying to stop Daniel other than his family from wanting to be executed. Daniel changed his mind so many times while on death role about dying. All this depended on what medication he was on at the time. By 2003 Daniel hung himself in prison. Is this American Justice?
Everyone acquainted with Daniel Colwell recognizes that he is mentally ill. He's been diagnosed as both schizophrenic and manic-depressive. He once invaded a TV station with a toy gun and a butcher knife, demanding airtime to denounce Christianity as a false religion, and wrote letters to the head of every Fortune 500 company, demanding money to spread his antireligious sentiments. Then in 1996, shortly after being discharged from a mental health center where he was suffering from suicidal depression, Colwell decided to kill someone so he could receive a death sentence. After driving to a shopping mall in his hometown of Americus, Georgia, he gunned down an elderly couple and then turned himself in.
During his trial, Colwell described himself as "God's personal psychiatrist." He threatened to kill jurors if they didn't give him the death penalty. Offered the opportunity to make a final statement in his defense, he sang a tune by the rock group Styx. Even the judge concluded, "There's no question that he is mentally ill."
But despite the overwhelming evidence that he suffers from severe illness, Colwell got his wish: He was sentenced to die. He now occupies a high-security prison cell in
Jackson, Georgia. Forbidden from speaking to the press, he passes much of his time trying to stop his attorneys from filing appeals that might prevent or delay his execution.
It has been well documented that the death penalty is imposed disproportionately on the poor and minorities, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule this fall on the constitutionality of executing inmates who are mentally retarded. But another disturbing aspect of the death penalty has largely escaped attention: States routinely hand down death sentences to people like Daniel Colwell who the courts acknowledge are mentally ill. The National Mental Health Association, the nation's oldest and largest organization that conducts research on mental illness, estimates that as many as 370 people with severe mental illnesses currently sit on death row—up to 1 of every 10 prisoners awaiting execution. The justice system "inadequately addresses the complexity of cases involving criminal defendants with mental illness," the group has concluded, calling for a complete suspension of the death penalty until the courts devise "more just, accurate and systematic ways of determining and considering a defendant's mental status."
In fact, there are currently few provisions in place that require judges and juries to spare the lives of those with severe mental illnesses. Even defendants who suffer from extreme delusions are deemed mentally "competent" to stand trial for their life if they simply understand the nature of the legal proceedings and are capable of assisting their lawyers. "You may believe that your thoughts are controlled by aliens who are beaming rays into your brain," says Stephen Bright, an attorney who heads the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, "but that won't necessarily have any bearing when it comes to assessing your competence to be executed."
Since the rise of modern psychiatry, an entire body of law has emerged to govern the trial and execution of those with mental diseases. In practice, however, legal procedures often fail to provide protection for the people who need it most. Defendants who were deranged at the time they committed their crime, for instance, can be found "not guilty by reason of insanity" and confined, often for life, to a psychiatric ward. But defense attorneys rarely rely on an insanity plea, since it can anger jurors who think the defendant is trying to escape responsibility for his crimes.
Those completely unaware of their surroundings can be found incompetent to stand trial, and juries and judges may consider a defendant's mental illness to be a mitigating factor when passing sentence. But mental illness, by its nature, is often episodic. Unlike mental retardation, which is measurable and constant, symptoms of mental illness come and go, frequently in ways that are confusing or inexplicable. Most mentally ill people "go through peaks and valleys," notes Bright. "If they can function at all or even do something 'normal,' it's seen as proof that they're okay."
The Supreme Court stepped into the debate in 1986 when it overturned the death sentence of Alvin Ford, a Florida inmate who called himself Pope John Paul III and was convinced that dozens of his friends and relatives were being tortured in the prison where he was held. But the high court limited itself to barring the execution of prisoners like Ford who are too ill to understand that they are going to die. "It is no less abhorrent today than it has been for centuries to exact in penance the life of one whose mental illness prevents him from comprehending the reasons for the penalty or its implication," the justices ruled.
Other than a Louisiana Supreme Court decision six years later, which prevents states from forcing antipsychotic drugs on a prisoner to make him sane enough to execute, the Ford ruling is the only clear-cut standard that protects mentally ill defendants from the death chamber. Given its narrow guidelines, the decision has been applied to only a handful of condemned prisoners. Among the few who have won a reprieve is Roosevelt Pollard, a Missouri inmate who, according to a psychologist who examined him, "lives in a world populated by demons and spirits." After he murdered two people and was sentenced to death, Pollard expressed genuine optimism, saying his execution would give him a chance to "chill out." In 1999, a circuit court declared Pollard incompetent and the governor stayed his execution.
One of the most striking examples of how courts treat defendants with mental illnesses is the case of Daniel Colwell. Born in 1961 to a deeply religious family, Colwell was raised in Americus, a small Georgia town of quaint brick storefronts about 130 miles south of Atlanta. His schizophrenia, as typically occurs, began to manifest itself during his 20's. Colwell moved to Louisiana to seek Christian salvation in a mission run by TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, but returned home, disillusioned and embittered, after the minister confessed to a dalliance with a prostitute. "A lot of Daniel's anger was directed at our religious views," recalls Steve Colwell, his youngest sibling.
The extent of Colwell's illness became clear when he stormed a TV station near Americus in 1989 on his anti-Christian crusade. He was in and out of mental institutions for several years, at times suicidal. According to one psychiatric evaluation from the period, he spent 22 hours a day in bed. "He states he does not go out because he does not know what he will do since his thoughts are not rational," the evaluation noted.
In 1992, Colwell asked his sister to tell the county sheriff that he planned to kidnap and murder Millard Fuller, the head of Americus-based Habitat for Humanity, unless he received a peculiar ransom: drugs he could use to commit suicide. After serving two years in jail, Colwell was released in June of 1995 and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment. On July 18, 1996, the Middle Flint Mental Health Center discharged Colwell, saying he was not taking his medication. .
Two days later, after contemplating suicide but failing to muster the resolve to carry it out, Colwell hit on the idea of committing murder to receive the death penalty. By his own confession, he tucked a nine-millimeter pistol under his belt and drove to the local Wal-Mart, where he scanned the parking lot for victims. Colwell, who is African American, considered a crowd of Hispanic shoppers, but decided he needed to kill whites to guarantee a death sentence. He picked out a woman and her two children but wavered again. When an elderly couple approached the threesome and began chatting, he pulled out the pistol and shot the man, Mitchell Bell, in the back and head. When Bell's wife, Judith, bent to tend to her husband, Colwell executed her with a gunshot to the back of the head.
At his trial in 1998, the only fundamental issue addressed was whether Colwell was legally competent to stand trial and be sentenced to death. Since he met the narrow standards— he understood that he was in a courtroom and could assist his attorneys— the jury deemed him sane enough to stand trial for his life. Colwell's state-appointed attorneys, Mike Mears and Ken Driggs, sought to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But Colwell, who was determined to die, insisted on pleading guilty. Judge Rucker Smith sided with Colwell and admonished his attorneys. "There are mentally ill people all over the country," the judge said, "but that doesn't give you the right to make decisions for them." .
From that point on, the issue of Colwell's sanity became largely irrelevant; all that mattered was whether the jury believed he deserved to die for his crime. The judge counseled Colwell about how he should conduct his case in order to have a death sentence upheld, repeatedly lecturing his defense team. "What I want you to do is very simple, and I don't need to use 50 words to explain it," he told the attorneys during one dispute. "Colwell wants the death penalty. He controls the case. He should be able to make his decisions to facilitate his obtaining his goal."
Mears protested: "Judge, before I assist him in getting the death penalty, I'll turn in my bar card."
Despite being repeatedly undermined by the judge and their own client, the defense put on a strong case. A number of psychiatrists and mental health experts detailed Colwell's illness, testimony the state made little effort to rebut. Mears also read jurors a letter Colwell had written to a nurse in 1997, in which he said that he planned to murder God. "I am going to pretend to become God's best friend," Colwell wrote. "I am going to ask God could I shave him with a razor. He is going to say yes. Then I am going to cut his throat."
But the trial seemed to turn when Judge Smith allowed Colwell to read an ominous letter explaining why he should be put to death. The 315-pound defendant did his best to look menacing. "Me and Death are best friends and we love each other," he read to the jurors. "For those of you who might want to see me suffer by making me suffer for the rest of my life in prison… How do you know that I will not break out of prison, and then I torture your loved ones, such as your children, parents or whoever you love deeply, even yourself… Jurors, why take the risk? Why take that foolish risk? Again, why take the risk? Daniel Colwell must die!"
On October 13, 1998, after deliberating for eight hours, the panel gave Colwell the death sentence. Before court adjourned, he asked Smith to set an execution date as soon as possible. "Mr. Colwell," the judge replied, "I will do anything I can to help you." Two days later, at the formal sentencing hearing, Smith asked the defendant if he wished to make a final statement. Colwell sang the Styx song "Babe": "I'll be lonely without you, and I'll need your love to see me through." When he finished, Smith confirmed the jury's death sentence; Colwell asked his attorneys to bring him a steak dinner to celebrate.
Once he was behind bars and receiving antipsychotic medication, Colwell grew more lucid and began having second thoughts. "I very much want to go to the state mental hospital to get help to save my life," he wrote Mears in June 1999. "I am very sorry for killing those people. I don't want to be a murderer but I need help mentally."
But Colwell's mental condition deteriorated anew. He now insists the letter was simply an attempt to win a transfer to a mental hospital, where it would be easier to kill himself—and he is working to fire Mears and retain an attorney who will dismiss all appeals. "It can take 10 to 20 years before they execute me," he wrote to five lawyers he selected at random. "I want to die now."
Last March, the Georgia Supreme Court sided with Colwell, unanimously shooting down an appeal by Mears. Colwell "likely suffered from a mental disease," the justices conceded, but he was legally competent to be executed because he "clearly understood the nature and object of his proceedings" and could "participate in his own case."
Mental health advocates are promoting a variety of reforms to help courts better evaluate defendants like Colwell. But many suspect that the fundamental problem lies in the inherent inequities of the death penalty itself. "Mentally ill or not, most people facing capital charges are poor," notes Collie Brown, senior director for criminal justice programs at the National Mental Health Association. "They don't have the resources to retain expert witnesses," and they often get court-appointed attorneys who don't even raise their condition at trial."
Colwell's attorney has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; a ruling is expected this fall. The motion is supported by the Bells' only child, Darryl, who opposes the death penalty for the man who killed his parents. But others involved in the case have no qualms about executing Colwell. "Daniel is an affable, witty, friendly guy and I feel sorry for him," says Judge Smith, who helped Colwell get the death penalty. "I was his only friend in that courtroom." If the sentence is upheld, the judge adds, he will assist Colwell by setting a firm execution date—and by attending the execution himself. "It's gonna be hell," he says. "It may even change my life. But I feel I owe it to him."
After viewing the story of Daniel Colwell his life before his mental illness and his life when he became afflicted with mental illness I have to tell you this system is broke. I know first hand that today help for the mentally ill is just about a passing thing. The mental hospitals are cutting back on inpatients. Everything is outpatient now. I had a patient she called me told me she was going to kill everybody in her house if I didn't come and get her. She was bi-sexual and her family hated her for it. There were a mixture of issues with her but I went got her and took her to intake then admitted her to crisis state center at the beach. She was kept there for only a days put back on the street. She still wanted to kill her family when she got out. Treatment is there but not the treatment the patients need. Because she wasn't suicidal they let her go. She didn't tell them she wanted to kill a family member. It didn't matter if I told them I wasn't her or a family member. They could only take the imformation I gave them. My point being what good does it do if the proper places aren't doing anything. Letting patients walk away due to cut backs in the city, state and federal levels?