Wayne State PhD student receives award for highlighting the correlation between serious mental illness and wrongful capital punishment convictions

Alexis Carl smiling
Alexis Carl

Over 170 American lives were nearly cut short when they were convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death, only later found to be innocent and exonerated for their crime as reported by the Dean Penalty Information Center (2021). According to Wayne State University School of Social Work PhD student Alexis Carl, the addition of a serious mental illness (SMI) for defendants may heighten their risk of being wrongfully convicted and consequently dealt a capital sentence. Carl explores this correlation in her recently published article “Dead Wrong: Capital Punishment, Wrongful Convictions, and Serious Mental Illness,” which has earned her the Student Paper – Gold Prize award from the Wrongful Conviction Law Review (WCLR).

Launched in May 2020, the WCLR is a non-profit, open access, peer-reviewed international journal focusing on wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice. The non-profit, open access, peer-reviewed international journal limits the number of student papers it will publish in any year. Carl’s peer-reviewed article is featured in their Volume 1 No. 3 (2020) Fall issue, which is available for free public viewing on the WCLR website. Carl also received a cash award as part of her award package.

Due to the cognitive and volitional impairments associated with SMI, people with SMI are especially  vulnerable  to  being  wrongfully  convicted  of  a  crime  and  subsequently  wrongfully sentenced  to  death. They may falsely confess to crimes, struggle in assisting with their defense, be perceived as an unreliable witness, appear as though they lack remorse and face prejudices from judges and jurors. – Alexis Carl

Carl’s research primarily focuses on criminal justice and mental health reform, specifically addressing the disparities, stigma, and discriminatory practices persons with severe mental illness face in the criminal justice system. “Honestly, I chose this area of research because I believe our current criminal justice systems are severely flawed and are way overdue for change,” stated Carl. “I chose Wayne State to pursue my social work doctoral degree because of Dean Kubiak and all of her hard work creating the Center for Behavioral Health and Justice (CBHJ) - I knew it was something I just had to be a part of.“ Launched in 2018 by Wayne State Social Work Dean Sheryl Kubiak, the CBHJ provides local communities, organizations, and behavioral health and law enforcement agencies across Michigan with customized services to optimize the diversion of individuals from jail and prison through the implementation of best and innovative practices at every intercept of the criminal justice continuum. Carl currently works at the CBHJ as a graduate research assistant collecting and analyzing data surrounding the impact COVID-19 has had in jails. Outside of the program, Carl works part-time as a clinical social worker and volunteers for Proving Innocence, a local organization dedicated to helping those who have been wrongfully convicted. 

Carl further explored the impact of SMI’s which are defined by the National Institute of Health “as a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities” (January 2021) while taking CRJ 7405 Wrongful Conviction with WSU Criminal Justice Professor Marvin Zalman, J.D., Ph.D. “Carl’s article initially began as a term paper in my CRJ 7405 course. I had the pleasure to sponsor her submission to the WCLR, which is required for student papers, and to mentor her in the publication process,” stated Zalman. “Her passion for justice and desire to substantiate the direct connection between having an SMI and being wrongfully convicted with a data-driven argument displays her aptitude towards impactful research.”

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