The British government continues to express its outrage at the execution two days ago of its citizen, Akmal Shaikh, in China. Mr. Shaikh had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which often results in deranged thinking and impulsive actions.
While the U.S. government is generally quick to condemn other countries for human rights violations, our great nation has been appropriately silent in this case. We pretty much have to be. We execute people who are mentally ill all the time. Also children—or, rather, people who committed capital crimes as children. Also innocent people who get snared in the net of a ruthless and antiquated “justice” system.
Reliable DNA testing has only been available for a few years and is often not used because of costs. Nonetheless, it’s become routine for prisoners condemned to death or life in prison to be exonerated when someone, such as the Innocence Project, takes an interest in their case. In 2009 alone, nine death-row prisoners were shown to be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Estimates of the number of inmates who are clinically diagnosed to be mentally ill (never mind those whose mental capabilities have never been assessed) range from a very modest 5 to 10% among death row inmates to about 33% in the general prison population. Children are routinely condemned to death or life in prison without possibility of parole.
Of the 52 people legally executed in the U.S. in 2009, how many were innocent or mentally ill? We’ll never know, of course.
What we do know is that as long as we as a nation condone execution, we cannot complain if our citizens abroad risk being subjected to the same rough justice.