For this last White Paper proposal, I have focused more on the “government” portion of mental health issues in the United States, and their evolution over time using three main court cases. Last week when I was researching, I discovered an article written by the American Civil Liberties Union that listed several court cases concerning mental health including Ford v. Wainwright in 1986, Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, and Panetti v. Quarterman in 2007 (ACLU).

Ford v. Wainwright was a court case that took place in 1986, which upheld the common law rule that the insane cannot be executed. This case came to light when Alvin Ford, a man convicted of murder who showed no signs of mental illness during his case, started to exhibit signs of mental illness before Florida could deliver his death penalty sentence. After the Florida Governor signed a death warrant despite the concerns of several psychiatrists, the case was remanded and judgment reversed. The Atkins v. Virginia court case in 2002 furthered the rights regarding criminals suffering from mental illnesses. In a previous court case, Penry v Lynaugh conducted in1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of an individual with mental retardation did not violate the 8th amendments right to avoid “cruel and unusual punishment.” However, thirteen years later, they reversed this judgment after Daryl Atkins was given the death penalty with an IQ of 59. Finally, the last of these three court cases, Panetti v Quarterman again deals with competency issues within legal proceedings, first ruling that defendants may not be executed if they can’t comprehend the reason for their execution, and that once a state has set an execution date, inmates may use habeas corpus proceedings to questions their competency. The case came to question after Scott Panetti killed his mother-in-law and father-in-law and then held his wife and daughter hostage overnight, before surrendering to the police the next morning. Despite having been hospitalized over 12 times for fragmented personality and schizophrenia like symptoms, and having his ex-wife attest to his battle with mental health, Panetti was found competent for trial. After he was sentenced to death and given an execution date, Panetti filed for appeal several times under habeas corpus, yet it was not until 2004 that the Supreme Court reviewed his case. Upon review, they found his case to be unfitting with the constitution, and overturned the previous death sentence conviction.

I bring up these cases because I believe they demonstrate how the view towards mental health and the criminal system has changed throughout the years. It was not, after all, until 1986 that the Supreme Court formalized a person with mental illness could not be given a death sentence. This type of reform is important to look over in order to determine what type of changes can be made in the future. Already, some of these changes are taking place. For example, in a story posted by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the White House Blog, one of the main purposes of the Affordable Care Act is to help Americans get access to mental health care. Her post reads, “the health care law…will expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for 62 million Americans” (Kathleen). These type of efforts are important to supporting the cause, but I look forward to use them as building blocks to where legislation can go.


Atkins v. Virginia. Cornell University Legal Information Institute. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. 20 Jun. 2002. Legal Information Institute. Cornell UniversityLaw School, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013

Ford v. Wainwright. Cornell University Legal Information Institute. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. 22 Apr. 1986. Legal Information Institute. Cornell UniversityLaw School, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Panetti v Quarterman. Cornell University Legal Information Institute. SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES. 28 Jun. 2007. Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

Sebelius, Kathleen. “The White House Blog.” Increasing Access to Mental Health, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

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