Death Row Syndrome
According to Amnesty International's 2009 report, the USA's 37 legal executions in 2008 placed it fourth in the world after China (1718), Iran (346) and Saudi Arabia (102). However, this ranking needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as it does not adjust for population size; and does not take into account additional executions that may have taken place away from the public eye in many of the countries listed. Having said that, it is nonetheless interesting to note that the USA is one of the few so called developed nations to maintain the death penalty in both law and practice, as can be seen by this map.
The European Court of Human Rights has condemned the death penalty as inhumane, most especially that portion of it that keeps inmates (including the more than 3000 currently on death row in the USA) in a stasis-like environment for a protracted period of time. Psychologists and lawyers have asserted that living for a prolonged period of time in the confines of death row can lead to a psychotic state, known as death row phenomenon or death row syndrome, which is triggered by three key factors: a lengthy time period between sentencing and execution, austere living conditions (such as an isolated six-by-ten foot cell) and the knowledge of living under the sentence of death.
In Connecticut in 2005, attorneys for death row inmate Michael Ross requested a stay of execution on the grounds that he had clinical death row syndrome. While on death row Ross had attempted suicide on three separate occasions, indicated repeatedly that he wished to waive his state and federally mandated appeals, and had "volunteered" for execution. Although the diagnosis was not entered into court records (no actual psychological diagnosis exists for the syndrome) it was nonetheless asserted that eighteen years on death row had, in effect, driven the man insane. The plea was denied and Ross was executed several months later.
Even without clinical psychological substantiation there are a number of social scientific papers that present compelling information about the effects of death row phenomenon. Perhaps most relevant are a few admittedly limited but consistent studies that have identified certain predictable patterns that condemned convicts use to cope with brutal confinement such as denial, projection, and obsessive rumination. Additionally it is said that other psychological characteristics consistent among death row inmates are powerlessness, fear, and finally "emotional emptiness" or a sense of death that emerges in the form of loneliness, apathy, passivity and decay.
Despite widespread concern about the psychological toll, among other elements, of the death penalty, advocates of capital punishment cite the United States Supreme Court's decision in Gregg v. Georgia: "Indeed, the decision that capital punishment may be the appropriate sanction in extreme cases is an expression of the community's belief that certain crimes are themselves so grievous an affront to humanity that the only adequate response may be the penalty of death."
This article is from the February 3, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.
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