Ohio to Execute Mentally Ill Man
On Wednesday, the State of Ohio is set to execute Abdul Hamin Awkal, despite ample concerns about his mental health. Awekal was convicted of shooting his estranged wife and her brother at a Cleveland area courthouse in 1992.
Though there is no dispute over Awkal’s conviction, his punishment—in particular, his ability, or lack thereof, to understand the reason for it—have been called into question several times as his date of execution has neared. Cleveland-area CBS affiliate WOIO notes that Awkal “suffers schizoaffective disorder and has a well-formed delusional system,” pointing out that:
Due to his mental illness, Mr. Awkal sincerely believes that he has orchestrated the U.S. military's efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan from death row, and that he has been in direct communication with the CIA and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In Mr. Awkal's mind, he is not being executed for the crimes he committed in 1992, but rather because the CIA wants him dead.
The Reform Movement has long opposed the death penalty under any circumstances, following the teaching in the Talmud of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah that a court that puts one person to death, even one person in 70 years, is “tyrannical.” Notwithstanding our existing policy of opposition to the death penalty, the Reform Movement has taken special note of the number of people with mental illness who have been executed in the United States and called on states that retain the death penalty to exclude from consideration people with mental illness.
The questions about Abdul Hamin Awkal’s mental standing also bring to mind Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases because any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. Although a court found Awkal to be guilty of his crime, the reports of his mental state suggest that his execution could still be a wrongful one if he is indeed not capable of understanding his punishment. The Mishnah passage likens wrongful executions to Cain killing Abel, concluding that “it is for this reason that God created only one human in the beginning, a token that he who destroys one life, it is as though he had destroyed all humankind, whereas he who preserves one life, it is as though he preserved all humanity.”