Theses and Dissertations

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Date of Award


Document Type

Dissertation - NSU Access Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Psychology (PhD)


Center for Psychological Studies

First Advisor

David Shapiro

Second Advisor

Lenore Walker

Third Advisor

Craig Marker


capital punishment, Death Penalty, Death Sentence, Mentally Ill Offenders, Mitigators, Public Opinion


Many aspects of capital punishment have been debated extensively, such as its legality and cruelty. One such aspect is the role a defendant's mental functioning should play in the proceedings. In recent years the Supreme Court has barred the mentally retarded and juveniles from the death penalty due to their cognitive limitations and problems with behavioral control (Slobogin, 2003).

This reasoning has prompted many in the fields of mental health and law to advocate for a similar bar for offenders with severe mental illness since their impairments create similar problems in judgment and behavioral control. The Supreme Court cited public consensus as its grounds in banning the mentally retarded and juveniles from sentences of death; however, public consensus on mentally ill capital offenders is not quite as clear. Few attempts have gauged public opinion on sentencing severely mentally ill offenders to death, and the little research that does exist has produced conflicting results. While polls show that Americans oppose the death penalty for the severely mental ill (Gallup, 2008), the literature shows that jurors are more likely to sentence these defendants to death (Charlotte School of Law [CSL], 2006).

Second to the issue of barring the severely mentally ill from the death penalty is the issue of what mental health factors would be considered severe enough to qualify for a bar. There has been no previous research to gauge public opinion on these issues. Surveys were constructed to gauge opinion on the issue and were mailed randomly to 1,640 people throughout the United States. A total of 202 surveys were returned completed. Support was found for a bar from the death penalty for the mentally ill. However, the mental health factors that should comprise a bar received varied support and were less clear in determining which should comprise a bar. When given alternatives to a death sentence, participants overwhelmingly chose some type of life sentence. Public opinion appears to be an important aspect in the imposition of capital punishment upon the mentally ill.

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