Joe Giarratano was on death row for twelve years, and remains incarcerated today, because mental illness and severe emotional distress wholly undermined reliable adjudication in his case. Using Giarratano’s remarkable story as a case study, I illustrate some of the ways in which mental illness and acute emotional distress can lead to unreliable findings and judgments and—even worse—can actually propel the criminal justice system toward a death sentence. I cover the unreliability of his confession, his impaired ability to assist counsel, his impaired capacity to make a rational decision regarding whether to initiate or continue post-conviction proceedings, his diminished mental responsibility at the time of the alleged offenses if he actually committed them, and an issue that fortunately never arose—his competence to be executed.
Mental Illness, Severe Emotional Distress, and the Death Penalty: Reflections on the Tragic Case of Joe Giarratano
Richard J. Bonnie
December 14, 2016