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NCJRS Abstract

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NCJ Number: 77275 Find in a Library
Title: Psychiatry and the Death Penalty - Emerging Problems in Virginia
Journal: Virginia Law Review  Volume:66  Dated:(1980)  Pages:167-189
Author(s): R J Bonnie
Date Published: 1980
Page Count: 23
Format: Article
Language: English
Country: United States of America
Annotation: This article examines the constitutional background of capital sentencing and of the Commonwealth of Virginia's capital punishment procedures; the uses and limits of psychiatric testimony in capital cases are analyzed, and recommendations are proposed.
Abstract: Between 1972 and 1976, 35 States enacted new death penalty statutes in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972). Some States, including Virginia, tried to minimize the risk of arbitrariness by requiring the imposition of the death penalty for certain crimes. Other States attempted to preserve some degree of discretion but to reduce the risk of arbitrariness through normative procedural restraints. In a series of cases decided in 1976, the Supreme Court reviewed representative statutes of each type. In these decisions, the Court invalidated statutes like Virginia's that had banned sentencing discretion altogether and had prescribed death as a mandatory penalty for certain types of homicides. The capital sentencing procedures adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in response to the 1976 ruling were modeled after the Georgia and Texas statutes upheld by the Court. Once a person has been convicted of a capital offense, a separate proceeding is held to determine whether death or a sentence of life imprisonment should be imposed. The death penalty may not be imposed unless the court or the jury finds either of two aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt. These circumstances involve future dangerousness of the offender and vileness of the offense. By requiring the States to individualize the capital sentencing process, the Supreme Court has virtually assured routine participation by psychiatrists and other mental health experts. Thus, the role of clinician is being expanded in capital cases at precisely the same time that the validity and reliablity of expert testimony by mental health professionals is being challenged on virtually every front. In order to reduce the risk of unfairness in the administration of the capital sentencing statutes, it is recommended that indigent defendants charged with capital crimes be provided a comprehensive forensic evaluation at State expense. Defendants who refuse to cooperate with State examiners would forfeit the right to introduce expert testimony regarding mitigating circumstances. In addition, clinicians who conduct pretrial forensic examinations must become familiar with the unique range of issues which are raised in a capital sentencing proceeding. The article provides 59 footnotes.
Index Term(s): Capital punishment; Dangerousness; Death row inmates; Expert witnesses; Forensic psychiatry; Pretrial procedures; Psychiatry; Psychological evaluation; Sentencing/Sanctions; State laws; Virginia
Note: Article is a modified version of an address given at the Third Annual Symposium on Mental Health and the Law, Richmond, Virginia, September 8, 1979.
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