Psychiatry and the death penalty: the landmark Supreme Court cases and their ethical
implications for the profession.
E. J. Kermani and J. E. Kantor,
Bull. Amer. Acad. Psychiatry & the Law
22(1): 95-108, 1994.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made a number of recent rulings in regard to the death penalty that will
likely have the effect of increasing the use of psychiatry during the trial and sentencing process in
capital cases. Any such changes are bound to increase the number of ethical dilemmas faced by
psychiatrists involved in such work. The rulings affecting psychiatry include: (1) The Eighth
Amendment forbids the execution of persons who are mentally incompetent in regard to their ability
to appreciate the reasons for punishment. (2) A mentally-ill prisoner may be forcibly given
neuroleptics if he presents a danger to himself or others. (3) Forced medication may not be used
during the trial and sentencing phase if it has the potential to change the defendant's demeanor
significantly enough to affect his defense. (4) Aggravating psychological factors affecting a convictee
may be balanced against mitigating factors in considering whether death sentence should be
imposed. (5) The psychosocial impact of the crime upon the victim's family may be presented during
the sentencing phase as factors relevant to sentencing. (6) Adolescents and retarded individuals are
not immune from the death penalty simply by virtue of their age or level of intelligence.