Deconstructing Prejudicial Psychiatric Labels: A Guidelines-Based Approach

Sean O'Brien, University of Missouri - Kansas City, School of Law
Kathleen Wayland, Habeas Corpus Resource Center


Prejudicial psychiatric labels such as antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy have an inherently prejudicial effect on courts and juries, particularly in cases involving the death penalty. This article explains how and why these labels are inherently aggravating, and also discusses the mental health literature indicating that they are subjective, unreliable and non-scientific. The authors conclude that no competent defense lawyer would pursue a mitigation case based on such a damaging and scientifically questionable psychiatric label. Further, a proper life history investigation conducted in accordance with the ABA Guidelines on the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases and the Supplementary Guidelines on the Mitigation Function of Defense Teams in Death Penalty Cases will lead to more fruitful avenues of mitigation and enable the defense to avoid or refute prejudicial psychiatric labels in virtually every case.