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March 19, 2021

Severe Mental Illness Initiative

“Defendants should not be executed or sentenced to death if, at the time of the offense, they had a severe mental disorder or disability that significantly impaired their capacity (a) to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness of their conduct, (b) to exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct, or (c) to conform their conduct to the requirements of the law”  -- ABA Recommendation 122A – August 2006

In short, the ABA finds that individuals with severe mental illnesses or disabilities present at the time of the crime should not be subject to capital punishment. This does not mean that defendants with mental illness should be absolved of responsibility for their crime. Rather, if found guilty, they would still be punished and could receive life in prison without parole, but would not be eligible for the death penalty.


Individuals with severe mental disorders or disabilities – present either at the time of their crime or as they are facing execution – should not be subject to capital punishment. This is one part of a comprehensive position that the American Bar Association (“ABA”) has supported since 2006, when, in conjunction with the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and other experts, it adopted a detailed policy opposing the use of the death penalty for individuals with serious mental illness.

Although the ABA does not take a position supporting or opposing the death penalty generally, our policy is based largely on the concept that the execution of people with severe mental illness is no more justifiable than executing people with intellectual disabilities or juveniles. Executing defendants belonging to one of these two groups has been held unconstitutional as our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the “worst of the worst” murderers for whom the death penalty is intended, less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their own defense, and more likely to be wrongfully convicted,  - characteristics that apply to certain individuals with severe mental illness, too.

Additionally, executing people whose disorders or disabilities significantly impair their ability to appreciate the nature of their conduct, exercise rational judgment, or conform their behavior to the requirements of the law is fundamentally inconsistent with the retributive and deterrent goals of the death penalty. Furthermore, as a matter of public policy, our society is learning more about the too-frequent fallibility and high costs of the death penalty, the impacts of mental illness on our veterans and other citizens, and the scarcity of affordable psychological and psychiatric treatment, leaving nearly 4 million people in the U.S. with untreated serious mental illness. All of these issues are not lost on the American people, who oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by a 2-1 margin, based on a 2014 national poll.

No jurisdiction that continues to use capital punishment has adopted policies to prevent the execution of individuals with serious mental illness. While mental illness can be viewed as a mitigating factor in some of these jurisdictions, studies have shown that jurors sometimes view mental illness as an aggravating factor or as an indication of future dangerousness, despite the evidence to the contrary. Therefore, now is the time to convert the ABA’s policy positions into meaningful education and advocacy tools to help states pass legislation that will establish clear standards and workable processes to prevent the execution of individuals affected by severe mental illness.

Actions and Resources

The Mental Illness Initiative works to achieve its goals in the following ways:

1. We compile legal, scientific, medical, social science, and public policy research and expertise on severe mental illness and the death penalty to be used as education and advocacy materials, including, for example:

  • White papers examining the constitutional and public policy concerns surrounding the execution of defendants with serious mental illness
  • Talking points outlining the legal and public policy reasoning supporting the exemption
  • Case studies of defendants with severe mental illness who have been executed despite their disability and others who have been exonerated from death row after being wrongfully convicted
  • State-specific research on their death penalty and mental health systems
  • A clearinghouse to collect and share comprehensive information on the death penalty and severe mental illness

2. We facilitate and strengthen the participation of experts engaged in the fields of mental health and criminal justice by: 

  • Supporting and coordinating the engagement of a multidisciplinary group of experts from the following communities: mental health association representatives, disability rights advocates, mental health practitioners, ABA leaders, local bar associations, judges, prosecutors, capital defenders, and researchers focused on death penalty, and/or mental health
  • Empowering mental health community leaders, who have been instrumental partners since the ABA started working on the issue of severe mental illness
  • Facilitating exchanges between state coalitions and national and local experts

3. Finally, we collaborate with state coalitions involved in legislative reform efforts by:

  • Providing campaign strategy support and sharing best practices
  • Supporting coalitions in crafting public and policymaker messaging and in understanding public support or concerns with the exemption
  • Providing logistical and organizational support, as needed
  • Helping coalitions identify meaningful partnerships at the local and national levels
  • Assisting in the drafting and revision of relevant legislation
  • Supporting coalitions who are reaching out, as relevant, to other localities that can support the exemption in their jurisdiction (city councils, counties, faith organizations, etc.)


The mission of the ABA Mental Illness Initiative is to educate legal professionals, policy makers, and the public on the subject of severe mental illness and the death penalty and to support policy reform efforts to exempt individuals with severe mental illness from the death penalty.

To further this mission, the Initiative seeks to:

  1. serve as a national resource for lawyers, organizations, and policy makers interested in learning more about the issues surrounding serious mental illness and capital punishment;
  2. provide policy materials to advocates and lawmakers who want to support legislation to exempt individuals with serious mental illness from the death penalty; and
  3. support state coalitions that seek to end the execution of defendants with severe mental illness.

Contact Us

If you are interested in learning more about the Initiative, do not hesitate to contact us. We will be responsive to requests for other information, support, or resources. To the extent that you have expertise and interest in the fields of mental health and the death penalty, we encourage you to reach out to us to discuss how we can include you in the effort.

Aurélie Tabuteau Mangels

Mental Illness Initiative Fellow
Death Penalty Due Process Review Project
American Bar Association
1050 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 400
Washington D.C. 20036
Tel.: (202) 442-3451
Email: [email protected]

Check our Resources Database

The Initiative compiles a comprehensive database of relevant documents on mental illness and the death penalty: reports, bills, media coverage, social science research, etc. Check our page to find the information you need.

Read our Comprehensive White Paper

Our comprehensive White Paper on Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty provides a comprehensive examination of how mental illness is currently treated in our capital punishment and criminal justice systems, what is typically meant by "severe mental illness", why current laws are inadequate and contrary to constitutional standards that exist for other vulnerable capital defendants, and why people with severe mental illness should not be subject to the death penalty as a public policy matter. Read or download the White Paper here.

Learn More About our Upcoming Events and Recent News

The Project regularly organizes and participates in educational events and panel discussions across the country on the subject of severe mental illness and the death penalty. Click here to check future events, learn more about past presentations and about the Initiative's recent work highlights!