The death penalty is a divisive issue that has well-meaning people arguing for similar goals but by different means. Proponents assert the death penalty is necessary to maintain order in society, but many believe that it more serves the power of the state, most often against vulnerable defendants. From this perspective executions are not about preserving the safety of citizens, but rather about retribution and sending a message.
As a former psychiatrist treating Florida death row prisoners, I argue we should not be executing anyone, especially not those who are sick and broken.
In February the state of Florida executed Donald Dillbeck, and it was undisputed that his life story was one of childhood abuse and neglect. His history of physical and emotional abuse began in utero and resulted in documented medical and mental consequences. Sadly, he never received mental health treatment and was bounced around the foster care system, dropping out of school in the ninth grade and fleeing to Florida as a teenager.
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There, he found himself asleep in a stolen car in a beachfront parking lot when Lee County Deputy Sheriff Dwight Hall awakened him. Dillbeck panicked and tried to flee but was tackled. In the struggle, he pulled the gun out of Deputy Hall's holster and fired two fatal shots.
The state sought the death penalty against the 15-year-old. Less than two months after his indictment, Dillbeck pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in an adult prison. Today, both of those sentences would be unconstitutional under U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
Dillbeck was sent to one of Florida's most violent adult prisons, known as a "gladiator camp," where he was subjected to violence and rape on several occasions. In 1990, feeling hopeless and desperate, he walked away from a minimum-security catering detail and committed the tragic murder of Faye Vann, for which he has now been executed, more than 30 years later.
Prior to his death sentence, he never had access to care for developmental, physical and psychological brain injuries.
Four of the 12 members of the jury heard his compelling mitigation and voted for a life sentence. In no other state in the country would his execution be legal on that basis alone. Several other states, including Ohio and Kentucky, have legislation protecting those with serious mental illness from the death penalty.
The death penalty is not necessary to protect society. If we want to protect the victims of child abuse and the population from the consequences of childhood abuse, we should provide services for family support and mental health treatment. In Dillbeck's case, once on death row, he got clean and sober, developed meaningful relationships with friends on the outside and found prayer and meditation as a way to cope. He had no violent incidents in the last three decades. Killing him did not make us any safer.
While Dillbeck's crimes were undoubtedly terrible, he is not the worst of the worst. The death penalty served no deterrence as his mental disorders had him act too impulsively to consider the consequences of his actions. Florida is among the lowest-funded states for children's mental health services, yet is on the forefront for executing those with impaired intellectual functioning and serious mental illness.
Veterans with uncontrolled PTSD are especially overrepresented on Florida's death row.
Death penalty executions are a unique form of homicide. The state kills not for self-defense, not for deterrence, not for justice, but for pure retribution. We must not accept this and we must tell our legislators to say, "not in my name may you kill." As someone with over 40 years' experience seeing patients with serious mental illness who are stigmatized, ostracized and blamed for their symptoms, I believe that recovery care, not ostracization, respects life and saves lives.
Once again - we should not be executing anyone, let alone the sick and the broken.
Dr. Joseph E. Thornton is a board member of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He is the former medical executive director of a Florida maximum security prison, where he treated death row inmates.
This guest column is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Times-Union. We welcome a diversity of opinions.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Execution of mentally ill is only retribution; doesn't make us safer