Volunteers for Execution: Directions for Further Research into Grief, Culpability, and Legal Structures
41 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2014 Last revised: 1 Jun 2014
Date Written: 2014
About 11% of those executed in the United States are death-sentenced prisoners who sought their own execution. These prisoners are commonly called “volunteers,” and they succeed in hastening execution by waiving their right to appeal their conviction and sentence. Certain interpretations dominate. Those who oppose a condemned prisoner’s request for execution often cite the prisoner’s history of mental instability and frame the prisoner’s decision as a product of suicidal depression. Related to this narrative is one that links death row conditions to the prisoner’s decision to hasten death. Conditions, in this account, contribute to the decision to abandon appeals by wearing the prisoner down to the point that he loses the will to live, or by contributing to “death row syndrome,” an evolving (and controversial) psychiatric diagnosis describing a mental condition that some prisoners develop as a result of living under a death sentence in highly socially isolating and stark conditions of confinement. Other narratives focus on ideas of rational choice and personal autonomy. This account emphasizes prisoners’ desire to control their own destiny and the civic virtue of respecting autonomy and choice, even for the least among us.
The empirical support for these explanations is sparse, and this article emerges from a larger effort to test the hypothesis that prisoners who seek execution resemble those who take their own lives in prison. The prison suicide literature has identified certain characteristics — such as race, sex, age, mental illness, and prison conditions — as increasing the risk of suicide behind bars. My research on Texas volunteers generally suggests many, but not all, of those traits characterize that volunteer population as well. This article focuses on findings that point to areas for future research not only on volunteers but also on larger questions of processes of hopelessness and culpability among criminal offenders, and how the criminal justice system may influence life-ending decisions.
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