School of Humanities



Elise Despott


Start date

Feb 2011

Submission date

Sep 2015

Elise Despott


A history of mental illness, mental disability and the death penalty in Texas, 1864-1924.


The death penalty is arguably one of the most discriminatory institutions in America today. African Americans, Hispanics, the mentally ill and the mentally disabled are all minority groups in American society who appear on death row and are executed in disproportionate numbers relative to their size in the general population. The subject of race and capital punishment has understandably inspired extensive academic study.

This thesis will explore the treatment people with mental illness and mental disability received in the Texas criminal justice system, paying particular attention to the historical roots of differentiation in the way the death penalty was applied to those who exhibit signs of mental illness or mental disability.

Answering the question of how the mentally ill and mentally disabled were treated in the Texas criminal justice system will involve both legal and social analysis. In addition to an examination of legal concepts of culpability, a critical element of this thesis will be to explore the social aspects of the death penalty. This includes the ways in which mental illness and mental disability intersected with race and class to impact the exercise of justice in every phase of a capital case including the execution. This thesis will not only focus on the beliefs of society but on the exercise of executive power over the Texas death penalty.

Why my research is important

People with mental illness and mental disability are among the most marginalised groups in America, subordinated both in life and academic literature. The history of the death penalty is no exception. When the death penalty is studied in terms of its disproportionate application, race is the predominant focus. While violence against black men was principally a public exercise as demonstrated by the public institutions of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and spectacle lynching spanning over three centuries, the story of people with mental illness and mental disability in America is for the most part, taken to be one of private degradation. Thus while continuing discrimination against African Americans in capital punishment has prompted much scholarship, the injustice encountered by those with mental illness and mental disability has not. This thesis will begin to redress this imbalance.