Competence to be executed: An ethical analysis post Panetti

Behav Sci Law. 2010 Sep-Oct;28(5):690-706. doi: 10.1002/bsl.951.


Competence to be executed evaluations in effect can prevent an execution or remove the last meaningful impediment to it. Forensic psychiatrists have primary duties to the legal system and truth and honesty, but like all other areas of medical consultation also should balance conflicting secondary traditional medical ethical duties. Participation in a legally authorized execution so violates medical roles, that it is ethically prohibited by the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association. This prohibition includes treatment intended to restore competence to be executed. However, despite the primary treatment intent otherwise being appropriate ethically, like relieving suffering or fostering prison safety, if competence to be executed almost predictably would be a treatment result, at least the risk of this result should be considered ethically as if it were intended. In contrast, competence to be executed assessments can be ethical. Diamond's approach of performing honest evaluations only for the defense is an ethical option for such assessments. However, it is challenging to persuade judges and juries of the objectivity of such honest legitimate assessments. Most practitioners therefore likely would consider assessing competence to be executed for either side. This ethically hazardous position necessitates sensitivity to potentially seriously conflicting duties and roles.

Publication types

  • Legal Case

MeSH terms

  • Capital Punishment*
  • Criminals / psychology
  • Forensic Psychiatry / ethics*
  • Homicide
  • Humans
  • Mental Competency / legislation & jurisprudence*