Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline
Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant. But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment. In 1997, four people inMississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2.
Fairley’s murder was undeniably tragic — that much was not up for debate. But Jackson County District Attorney Tony Lawrence’s recounting of the gruesome details wasn’t enough to convince all 12 members of the jury that Street deserved to die at the hands of the state.
Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOX, jurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.” Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”
This is far from the first time testimony about a defendant’s mental illness has informed a jury’s decision to oppose a capital sentence. In 2015, a Washington state jury chose a life sentence for James McEnroe, who was convicted after killing six members of his girlfriend’s family. Jurors who chose the life sentence pointed to his documented “mental health issues” as one of the reasons they chose to spare him from the death penalty. That same year, Colorado jurors sentenced James Holmes to life without parole, after her shot twelve people in an Aurora movie theater. A juror told the Denver Post that “the issue of mental illness was everything for the one [juror] who did not want to impose the death penalty.” Across the country, the mental illness of defendants has increasingly become reason not to impose the death penalty.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court bars the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities, that legal definition is fairly narrow and does not bar the execution of many mentally ill people. A 2017 study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found that 43 percent of prisoners executed between 2000 and 2015 were diagnosed with mental illness at some point in their lives.
Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country. Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences. That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases. Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.