Skip to content

Judiciary Committee hears testimony on ending the death penalty for the severely mentally ill

Thanks to all who came to the hearing in Frankfort for today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing. The room, which seats more than 100 persons, was filled with those supporting this important legislation to ban the death penalty for people with severe mentally illness. This hearing is just the beginning though.

All KCADP supporters should contact their state representative and state senator and urge them to support this legislation.  Please call 800-372-7181 and leave this message, “I am calling to ask that you support House Bill 16 and please consider co-sponsoring this important mental health legislation to prevent the execution of severely mentally ill persons.” (If you do not know the name of your legislator, the person who answers the phone may be able to help you. But it is easier to use the Project Vote Smartlink to fill in your home address, including your nine digit zip code to learn the names of your state representative and your state senator.)

Below the jump is an report of the meeting by the Legislative Research Commission staff.  As you will see below the commonwealth attorney from Bowling Green, Chris Cohron, spoke against passage of this bill. He purposely misrepresented what the bill does. His remarks cannot further the cause of justice and why he wants to position the Commonwealth Attorneys Association in a way that undermines the credibility of our justice system is a mystery.

We will be following up with more information so that you can continue to talk with your legislators about this issue. In the meantime, look for TV coverage in Lexington with Greg Stotelmyer (Channel 36) and Kentucky Public Radio coverage with Tony McVeigh. Here is a link to the Courier-Journal story by Stephanie Steitzer. Ironically her report focused on a piece of legislation that the committee gave 20 minutes to, while we were afforded over an hour of time to make our case.

Follow the jump for the Legislative Research Commission News’s write-up of the hearing.

Proposed ban on death penalty for severely mentally ill reviewed by state legislative panel

FRANKFORT – Lawmakers today reviewed a proposal that would eliminate the death penalty for severely mentally ill persons who commit capital crimes in Kentucky.

House Bill 16, sponsored by House Minority Whip David Floyd, R-Bardstown, and Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, stalled in the House Judiciary Committee during the 2010 Regular Session. The bill would have defined “severely mentally ill” defendants under Kentucky law and eliminated the death penalty for those defendants while leaving courts the option to hand another sentence down in those cases. Seriously mentally retarded defendants in capital cases and those who commit capital crimes when they are under age 18 are already exempt from the death penalty in Kentucky.

Sheila Schuster with the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition told state lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary that severely mentally ill persons are not deterred by the threat of the death penalty and that “it is time to remove this small group from (those eligible) for the death penalty” while still holding such persons accountable for their crime.

Severe mental illness, according to testimony by psychologist Dr. Russ Williams, affects only 2.6 percent of the population and includes such disorders as schizophrenia and delusional disorder, he said. A person with such a disorder often has non-reality based beliefs which Williams said may include thoughts that the individual is a king or a queen, or even a major religious figure. “They have no basis in reality of what’s going on,” he said.

“We’re not asking that these people not be prosecuted,” said Williams. “We’re asking that the death penalty be taken off but they still be held accountable for their actions.”

Execution of the severely mentally ill is still legal in most death-penalty states despite a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that execution of the insane violates a ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” set out in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 24-year-old ruling did not mandate procedures for states to follow to determine a person’s legal sanity.

The death penalty was eliminated for mentally retarded defendants and defendants who commit capital crimes under the age of 18 as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings issued in 2002 and 2005 respectively. Ernie Lewis with the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained that mental limitations of the two groups made them less culpable in the eyes of the Court.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, questioned language in HB 16 that states a mental disorder that is “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct or attributable solely to the acute effects of voluntary use of alcohol or other drugs” would not, by itself, indicate the person has severe mental illness. Hoover said the definition of severely mentally ill in the bill would prevent someone from voluntarily using alcohol or other drugs, thereby allowing mentally ill persons to claim substance abuse was the cause of their disorder.

HB 16 would define a severely mentally ill defendant as someone who at the time of their crime “had a severe mental disorder or disability that significantly impaired his or her capacity to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness or his or her conduct, exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct, or conform his or her conduct to the requirements of the law.”

Lewis said HB 16 would have addressed intoxication of a mentally ill person during mitigation.

As far as competency to stand trial is concerned, Williams said there is a difference between competency to stand trial and criminal responsibility. A person’s competency can ebb and flow, while criminal responsibility, he said, is “stuck in time.” That segued into a comment made by Chris Cohron of the Kentucky Commonwealth Attorneys Association who said state law already exempts legally insane individuals from the death penalty.

“I’m not aware of any prisoner under a death sentence (in Kentucky) who has been found guilty but mentally ill,” Cohron said.

But Lewis, in response to another comment, said the behavior of a defendant at the time of the crime is what matters under the Eighth Amendment and would matter under HB 16.

“Do they meet insanity (standards) or significant mental illness impairment (as defined in HB 16)?” asked Lewis. Currently in Kentucky, Lewis said there is a “major gap” between the court’s treatment of a person on trial for a capital crime who is not insane but who is impaired to such a degree that the person lacks the capacity to determine the impact of his or her behavior.

“In other words, he doesn’t know right from wrong,” Lewis said.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

%d bloggers like this: