Dead Wrong: Capital Punishment, Wrongful Convictions, and Serious Mental Illness


  • Alexis E. Carl Wayne State University



serious mental illness, capital punishment, wrongful convictions, exoneration


Serious mental illness (SMI), wrongful convictions, and capital punishment is explored, as having a SMI may heighten an individual’s risk of being wrongfully convicted and consequently dealt a capital sentence. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court banned the use of capital punishment for individuals with intellectual disabilities, ruling it unconstitutional, due to the diminished moral and intellectual capacity held by these individuals. Based on these Supreme Court findings, an argument is made that SMI is a compelling mitigating factor that ought to disqualify the pursuit of capital punishment. Due to the cognitive and volitional impairments associated with SMI, people with SMI are especially vulnerable to being wrongfully convicted of a crime and further wrongfully sentenced to death. Data to build this argument include that those with SMI are more likely to: 1) falsely confess; 2) struggle with assisting in their defense; 3) be perceived as an unreliable witness; 4) appear as though they lack remorse; and 5) face prejudices from judges and jurors; which all contribute to wrongful convictions. An explanation of these vulnerabilities are discussed in detail by examining 26 case vignettes (derived from the National Registry of Exonerations and other sources) where such individuals were wrongfully convicted due to SMI. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations is further analyzed, leading to discussion of the disproportionate co-occurrence of wrongful convictions that are stimulated by SMI. This paper concludes with an analysis of reforms and a discussion of how to enact safeguards to protect individuals with SMI.




How to Cite

Carl, A. E. (2020). Dead Wrong: Capital Punishment, Wrongful Convictions, and Serious Mental Illness. The Wrongful Conviction Law Review, 1(3), 336–363.



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