January 20, 2017

Lawmakers consider death penalty ban for serious mental illness

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Legislation to ban the death penalty for those with serious mental illness was introduced in the Indiana General Assembly on Jan. 4. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the public policy arm of the Church in Indiana, supports the legislation.

Senate Bill 155, authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, removes capital punishment as a penalty for those suffering from one or more of six types of serious mental illness.

Those diagnosed with schizophrenia; bipolar disorder; major depressive disorder; delusional disorder; posttraumatic stress disorder; or traumatic brain injuries qualify for the exemption. The bill defines “serious mental illness,” commonly referred to as SMI, using the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) criteria.

Merritt said he supports the death penalty, but draws a “bright line of distinction” between someone who is rational and normally functioning who commits a murder out of revenge or for other reasons, and a person who lacks normal mental faculties or control of themselves.

If passed, Merritt said those on death row in Indiana with serious mental illness could appeal their sentence and have it commuted to life in prison without parole.

“If a person is mentally ill, they are mentally ill. My intent of the bill is that no person who is mentally ill would be put to death because they committed murder,” the senator said. He added the fate of his bill is uncertain as “it is very early in the process,” but he plans to “work very hard” to get a hearing for the bill.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, said that the Church opposes the use of the death penalty in nearly all cases, noting that its use is permitted when it is the only means to protect the common good. He added Catholic teaching also asserts that an individual must have maturity and consciously choose an action for one to be morally responsible.

Indiana no longer executes the mentally disabled or minors because they may not be fully responsible for their actions, he said.

“Those who are mentally ill have an impediment that limits their culpability regarding their actions also,” said Tebbe. “As with the previous modifications in Indiana’s application of the death penalty, this change to exempt those with serious mental illness from execution is prudent and just. While Senate Bill 155 does not eliminate the use of the death penalty, it does restrict its use and corrects an injustice in its application. We support the bill.”

Tebbe asserts the death penalty ban for those with serious mental illness does not exempt an individual from being held accountable. Rather, removing the death penalty as an option for punishment allows the state to fulfill its obligation to the public and to the individual.

In Catholic teaching, Tebbe said, it is the state’s duty to protect the common good and to render an unjust aggressor unable to do harm. The punishment, in addition to defending the public order and protecting people’s safety, should have the effect of correcting the guilty party and providing restitution. Senate Bill 155, in the view of the ICC, provides for public safety and does not take away an opportunity to correct and help the offender.

Matthew Ellis, program director for the Hoosier Alliance for Serious Mental Illness Exemption, said, “I think it’s really important that we protect those who we deem not morally culpable from the death penalty. We’ve already decided to exempt juveniles and those who are intellectually disabled.

“Those with serious mental illness share the same inability to understand the nature of their crimes and know the consequences of their crimes,” he added.

Ellis is aware of at least six other states that are actively seeking legislation to exempt those with serious mental illness including Virginia, Idaho, Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio and South Dakota. Connecticut exempted those with serious mental illness from the death penalty in 2006, but subsequently banned the death penalty.

Ellis said there are 12 people in Indiana with active death sentences—one woman and 11 men.

“There are two men who definitely had SMI at the time of their crime,” said Willis, “but this number is not concrete because it’s possible other defense teams may argue their clients fit the exemption as well.”

Ellis said to give a perspective on statistics, Mental Health America, a national support and advocacy group for mental health, in one analysis estimates that between five and 20 percent of people on death row have a serious mental illness.

Ellis firmly believes there is a “real chance” of the bill passing because he has seen Indiana lawmakers open to expanding treatment and funding for mental health issues in recent years.

Senate Bill 155 is assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits a hearing. Tebbe said he hopes the bill gets a hearing within the next few weeks.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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