Killing the Willing: 'Volunteers,' Suicide and Competency

88 Pages Posted: 15 Sep 2004


Of the 822 executions, in the "modern" era of capital punishment, 106 involved "volunteers," or inmates who chose to waive their appeals and permit the death sentence to be carried out. The debate about volunteers, although intense, has primarily been polemic. Those who wish to curtail a death row inmate's ability to waive his appeals refer to volunteer cases as nothing more than "state assisted suicide"; advocates of permitting inmates to choose execution reject the suicide label, instead focusing on respect for a death row inmate's right to choose whether to accept his punishment.

This article takes a different approach. It asks how, and how often, volunteers are in fact similar to suicidal persons and offers some empirical comparisons between the characteristics of death row inmates who have waived their appeals and been executed with those of people who commit suicide in the "free world." The demographic and epidemiological similarities between death row volunteers and free world suicides strongly suggest that the present legal standard for assessing the legitimacy of a death sentenced inmate's desire to waive his appeals - the competency standard - has turned a blind eye to the possibility that many waivers are motivated by the inmate's desire to commit suicide.

Thus, this article proposes a standard for assessing waiver which both attempts to insure that a death row inmate is not permitted to use the death penalty as a means of committing state assisted suicide, and which protects the right of a mentally healthy inmate to forego further appeals when motivated by acceptance of the justness of the punishment.

Suggested Citation

Blume, John H., Killing the Willing: 'Volunteers,' Suicide and Competency. Available at SSRN:

John H. Blume (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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