Women and Race: An Examination of the Death Penalty Throughout American History

Changing the Message of the Death Penalty via State Sanctioned “Suicide”: James French and Christina Riggs

Entry #3: State Sanctioned Suicide

The practice of volunteering for execution by stopping all appeals is not an uncommon occurrence on death row. It has been proven that death row conditions,


specifically solitary confinement, have the potential to produce mental illness and conditions such as hallucinations, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli, and extreme anxiety, but what about inmates who commit murder just because they want to die? This was the case for James French and more recently, Christina Riggs. If inmates who wish to commit state-sanctioned “suicide” are obliged, the message of the death penalty in itself is skewed, and concerns about the mental health process upon conviction, unearthed.

It is cases like those of James French and Christina Riggs that raise an important question about mental health and the death penalty. Although it has been proven that extended periods of time in solitary confinement can lead to physiological changes in the brain, and has the ability to induce psychosis, for those who request the death penalty from the beginning, a new concern is raised. It is prison policy that inmates are held on suicide watch for 24 hours before their set execution

date. This implies that the prison system cares about, and tries to prevent the action of suicide, yet death sentences are still being handed down to those who request them.

In the 2000s case of Christina Riggins, her suicide attempt ended with the murder of her two young children and her requesting of the death penalty when she failed to successfully kill herself. Having taken “28 Elavil tablets [..] and injecting herself with


enough undiluted potassium chloride to kill five people”, it is a miracle that doctors were able to save Riggs after she and her deceased children were found the next day in their Arkansas home (DPIC). During her trial, Riggs blamed “acute depression for the state of mind that led her to drug and suffocate her children, and then to unsuccessfully attempt suicide” thus, clearly expressing her mental health issues to the court (Haddigan, 1999). She would not allow defense for her actions and made it clear that she wanted to receive the death penalty. Upon being sentenced to death, Riggs squeezed her attorney’s hand and said, “thank you”; Riggs was executed on May 2, 2000 (DPIC). She was the first women to be executed in the state of Arkansas in over 150 years and the fifth women to be executed in the U.S. since 1976 (new death penalty era) (Haddigan, 1999).

Another example of state-sanctioned suicide is best argued by Richard Strafer, author of


Volunteering for Execution, citing the case of James French who murdered a man just to request the death penalty. When he was denied the opportunity to die and given a sentence of life without parole, he murdered his cellmate before the court granted his wish to be executed (Strafer, 1983). Shafer argues that by allowing death row inmates to choose to be executed, the purpose of the death penalty is changed from serving as a general deterrent to an incentive for those who desire suicide but do not have the will to do it themselves. Even worse so, this use of the death penalty encourages crime rather than aims to prevent it. It is unclear why French desired the death penalty but his last words were telling. Upon being strapped into the electric chair French exclaimed, “Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper, ‘French fries’ (Murderpedia)! It is clear that French was not thinking of his victims or feeling remorse for his crime as the state had finally given him exactly what he wanted. Although their crimes were brutal and heinous, the fact that both Christina Riggs and James French were deemed sane to stand trial when it was clear their motives were suicide, was an inaccurate and unethical decision by the state itself.

This misdiagnoses or failure to recognize mental illness or distress is not uncommon.

frenchSome argue that these shortcomings of Psychiatry when it comes to the death penalty are no accident. In his publication, Death Row Syndrome and demoralization: Psychiatric means to Social Policy Ends, Dr. Harold Schwartz warns that the field of Psychiatry should “not co-opt the authority of psychiatry through invalidated diagnoses and ambiguous competency criteria to reach social and political goals they cannot otherwise achieve” (Schwartz, 2005, 155). This indicating that some of the lapses in mental health diagnosis may be connected with political and social ideals of the death penalty, rather than the case of the inmate themselves.

In conclusion, the allowance of some to receive the death penalty whose motive is clearly “suicide” is an unethical use of government power. Not only does this practice change the message and purpose of the death penalty, but it has the potential to actually increase the murder rate rather than lowering it. State-sanctioned suicide is not the same punishment as state-sanctioned execution, and the allowance of such a practice uncovers grave concerns surrounding the Psychiatric evaluation of inmates and the criteria of inmate mental health in order to qualify for the death penalty.



Haddigan, M. (1999, April 9). “They Kill Women, Don’t They?”. Arkansas Times Online. Retrieved from http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/death/US/riggs629.htm

James Donald French (n.d.). In Murderpedia. Retrieved from http://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/french-james-donald.htm

Kirby, J. (2015, May 16). Photos: A Haunting Look at America’s Execution Chambers. Daily Intelligencer. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/05/haunting-photos-of-us-death-chambers.html

Schwartz, MD, H. I. (2005). Death Row Syndrome and Demoralization: Psychiatric Means to Social Policy Ends. Journal of American Psychiatry and the Law, 33(2), 153-155. Retrieved from http://jaapl.org/content/33/2/153

Strafer, R. (1983). Volunteering for Execution: Competency, Voluntariness and the Propriety of Third Party Intervention. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 74(3), 860-912. Retrieved from JSTOR (1143137).

Women and the Death Penalty (n.d.). In Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/women-and-death-penalty#facts

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