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Handbook of Forensic Psychiatric Practice in Capital Cases


Introduction


Writing a report for sentencing is, in most criminal legal situations, quite different from writing for an aspect of an earlier stage in the criminal justice process. Whereas many of the legal tests to which reports for earlier stages are directed tend to be ‘binary’, and closely defined, in form, sentencing guidelines generally tend to be much more ‘graded’ in nature, or in their implications. And, although administration of the discretionary death sentence is, of course, binary – in that it is either imposed or not – the legal tests in regard to whether it should be given, or not, are ‘softer’, and less tightly defined than many of the other legal tests with which a psychiatrist has to deal.


A further difference, certainly for the expert, is that writing a report for use in a sentencing hearing involves that expert much more ‘closely’ in determination of punishment than does writing a report for a pre-trial, or trial stage, where their opinion is more ‘remote’ in its implications for punishment, dealing ultimately only with determination of guilt or innocence. And this has major ethical implications, certainly for doctors, in terms of their proximity to, and influence over the determination of ‘doing harm’, that is, maleficence (see Chapter 15 for discussion of the utilisation of medical evidence directed not just at legal determination of guilt but also punishment).


Mitigation


Aggravating and mitigating factors are taken into account when sentencing convicted offenders. Aggravating factors are those factors taken to indicate a greater degree of culpability and result in more severe sentences. Mitigating factors have the opposite effect, and can include factors relating to mental health and personality. Within jurisdictions retaining the discretionary death penalty, psychiatric and psychological factors which at trial fell short of laying the foundation for a mental condition defence, or partial defence, can take on great significance in terms loosely of ‘mitigation’, or in terms of relevance to one of the recently established legal tests applied within discretionary capital sentencing – those of ‘beyond reformation’ and ‘the worst of the worst’ (see below).


The role of mental disorder


Te presence of mental disorder is important, arising from the common law principle which prohibits imposition of the death penalty, or execution per se, on anyone with mental disorder (those who are idiots or insane). Tis principle applies irrespective of whether the mental disorder posited was present at the time of any offence.


Expert mental health evidence is therefore relevant to the determination by the judge of the appropriate sentence, unless there is a mandatory sentence applicable on conviction of the offence per se.


Where sentencing is discretionary, or can be graded, mental health expertise can be relevant to its determination. In some circumstances there may be no basis for mitigation in regard to mental disorder beyond potentially having an unspecified mitigating effect. Here, information is gathered in the usual clinical fashion, in terms of diagnosis and formulation. However, its relevance to sentencing may be perceived by the court to go beyond solely whether or not there is mental disorder present


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