The Death Penalty and Mental Illness: the Ethical Debate

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Updated: Sep 05, 2023
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As mentioned earlier, many criminals have associated mental illnesses. Each plays a potential factor in why the act(s) committed were done. Some specific cases include those of Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Aileen Wuornos. Each suffered from either antisocial personality disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder.

Case Study 1: Ted Bundy

The first case involving a criminal with a mental illness was that of Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy was born Theodore Robert Cowell on November 24, 1946. Bundy was born to Louise Cowell.

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The identity of Bundy’s father is unknown, so Bundy was raised by his mother and his grandparents. Throughout most of Bundy’s life, he knew his grandparents to be his parents and his mother to be his sister. This was to hide the fact that his mother was a single parent in the 1950s. Bundy grew up with an abusive grandfather who frequently suffered hallucinations and a depressed, agoraphobic grandmother (‘Ted Bundy’). Growing up, Bundy performed well in school, graduating in 1965. He did, however, begin breaking into cars and homes, selling the goods he acquired to pay for ski trips. In college, Bundy was shy and socially awkward, which caused him to transfer in his sophomore year.

Both schools he attended were located in Washington State. This was when Bundy met Stephanie Brook. He did everything he could to impress her, but she later ended the relationship due to his lack of ambition. This sent Bundy into a depression, thinking about the breakup for years. During this time, he learned the truth about his grandparents and mom. A new, more confident Bundy emerged with a new love and praise from his former love due to this new confidence. Bundy became involved in politics in 1973, but in 1974, women began disappearing from college campuses in Washington and Oregon. They were last seen with Bundy. As time passed, more victims were found assaulted, raped, and sodomized (‘Profile Of Ted Bundy – Serial Killer, Rapist, And Necrophile’). Ted Bundy was arrested in August of 1975. He was charged and found guilty. After multiple escapes from prison, Bundy was executed in the electric chair (‘Murders’). Bundy was classified as a level 1 psychopath (‘Psychological Analysis’). He suffered from brain damage (‘Ted Bundy’).

Case Study 2: Ed Gein

Another criminal by the name of Ed Gein was classified as a schizophrenic. Gein was born on August 27, 1906. He grew up with an alcoholic father and an abusive mother. Gein looked up to his mother despite her verbal abuse. The supposed fire-related death of his brother and the death of his mother sent Gein into a solitary life. He created a shrine for his mother (‘Ed Gein | Biography, Crimes, & Facts’). Gein began studying anatomy. This was also the time that graves began to be burglarized. Gein was not only stealing from graves but also committing murders in order to obtain body parts and organs. All of Gein’s victims were women. Gein became a prime suspect of suspicion, and his home was searched. Police found organs in a refrigerator, a heart, and many body parts made into household items (‘Ed Gein Kills Final Victim Bernice Worden’).

Ed Gein told the police that he stole from fourth gravesites on three different trips. He also reported that he was in a bewildered state during his graveyard visits. Gein revealed that he did have a motive for his crimes. His end goal was to recreate his mother in a “woman suit” in order for him to physically be in her skin and become his deceased mother. Gein was arrested and pleaded insanity. He was admitted to Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. There, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Gein was retried with the same result of an insanity plea. He remained in a mental hospital for the remainder of his life (‘The Story Of Ed Gein — The Killer Who Used Human Body Parts In Strange Ways’).

Case Study 3: Aileen Wuornosn

The final serial killer linked to a mental illness was Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos was born Aileen Carol Wuornos in February 1956. Wuornos was born to her father, an accused child molester who later committed suicide in prison, and her mother, who abandoned Wuornos and her brother. They were raised by their grandparents, who were abusive alcoholics. Wuornos began prostituting herself for money, beer, and cigarettes at the age of eleven. She gave birth to her first and only child at only fourteen, who she gave up for adoption. After getting kicked out of her home at the age of fourteen, Wuornos began prostituting and committing other crimes. Between 1989 and 1990, police discovered a total of seven bodies belonging to white men ranging from forty to sixty-two years old. The men had been shot multiple times. Wuornos stole from the victims, including taking their cars (‘The Case Of Aileen Wuornos – The Facts Capital Punishment In Context’). Wuornos was arrested at a biker bar and tried.

She was found guilty of first-degree murder and various other charges. Wuornos’ trial was extensive, with a strong push for the death penalty (‘Aileen Wuornos – The Trial | Capital Punishment In Context’). Wuornos had been spared the death penalty but later admitted to more murders and was again sentenced to death. Aileen Wuornos was executed on October 9, 2002, by lethal injection. She was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder and bipolar personality disorder (‘Aileen Wuornos – The Post-Trial Period | Capital Punishment In Context’).


The brain has various functions and roles in behavior. Mental illness as an effect of injury or biological factors can be observed in many of the criminals convicted of murder and other crimes. In order to fully understand the minds of these criminals, studies of the brain and the links of the brain to mental illness would be key.

Works Cited

  1. Psychology Today. (2015). Profile of Ted Bundy: Serial killer, rapist, and necrophile. Psychology Today.
  2. Crime Museum. (2022). Murders: The chilling tales of Ted Bundy’s homicide spree. Crime Museum.
  3. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2023). Ed Gein | biography, crimes, & facts. Encyclopedia Britannica
  4. Capital Punishment in Context. (2023). Aileen Wuornos – The post-trial period. Capital Punishment in Context.
  5. “Smith, J. (2019). Psychological analysis: Understanding the mind of Ted Bundy. Journal of Criminal Psychology, 29(4), 455-470.
  6. Editors. (2023). Ted Bundy biography.
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The Death Penalty and Mental Illness: The Ethical Debate. (2023, Jun 21). Retrieved from