What Is Death Row Syndrome?

And who came up with it?

Convicted serial killer Michael Bruce Ross was granted a stay of execution Monday, when his lawyers argued that Ross had been suffering from “death row syndrome” when he decided last year to forgo appeals that might have delayed his execution. What is death row syndrome?

For most of its public life, what the Ross lawyers called “death row syndrome” has been known as “death row phenomenon,” a vaguely defined term that refers to the dehumanizing effects of living for a prolonged period on death row. The term is legal, not clinical: Neither death row syndrome nor death row phenomenon is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (or represented in its handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It was first coined not by psychiatrists, but in the extradition hearings of a German citizen, Jens Soering, who was arrested in England and charged with murders committed on American soil in 1985.

Standing before the European Court of Human Rights in 1989, Soering argued that the conditions he would live under while awaiting execution, which he called the “death row phenomenon,” constituted inhumane and degrading treatment. He said the prolonged interval between sentencing and execution, and the damaging experience of living during that time with severely limited freedom, minimal—if any—contact with other inmates, and always under the approaching cloud of impending execution were elements of the “phenomenon” that would make his incarceration as psychically damaging as a similar period of torture. The court agreed.

Since then, Soering’s term has become a popular talking point among death penalty opponents around the world and has turned up in extradition hearings in such places as Zimbabwe, Bulgaria, Japan, and the West Indies. But legal experts could not recall another instance in which lawyers had used the term in a trial on U.S. soil, either in the sentencing stage or in arguments about a client’s competency to pursue appeals.

What’s odd about the Ross lawyers’ use of Soering’s term is that they’re not using it to describe how cruel and dehumanizing death row is. They used it to suggest that Ross is clinically incapable of fighting for himself. But even if Ross is too depressed to pursue his appeals, there is a better alternative than “death row syndrome.” In accepting his sentence, Ross identified himself as a well-established type of condemned prisoner commonly known as a “volunteer,” who pursues his own execution and openly expresses a wish to die. Virtually every jurisdiction in the country already allows third-party actors—families, interested lawyers—to intervene on behalf of volunteers who have lost the will to appeal their sentences.

Next question?

Thanks to Robert Weisberg of Stanford University Law School.