Ohio Bill To End Death Penalty For Those With "Serious Mental Illness"

By Lindsey Weedston 05/28/19

The bill would also allow all prisoners on death row within the state to petition for resentencing.

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Ohio prisoner with mental illness facing the death penalty

A bipartisan bill would ban the death penalty in Ohio for anyone found to have “serious mental illness,” which the bill limits to diagnosed schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder.

It must also be determined that said mental illness “significantly impaired the person's capacity to exercise rational judgment” during the moment of the crime.

The bill, which is currently making its way through the Ohio legislature, would also allow all inmates on death row within the state to petition for resentencing under this new policy. Prosecutors are opposing the bill based on the concern that death row inmates will use this as an opportunity to delay their sentence. Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick testified that it’s “likely that every single person on death row would file such a motion,” which could overwhelm the courts.

However, the bill is supported by multiple mental health professional and advocacy groups, including the Ohio Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychiatric Physician's Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio (NAMI Ohio).

"People with these mental illnesses don't always know what they're doing," said NAMI Ohio Executive Director Terry Russell. "We don't think it's ethically or morally right to take their life because of it."

Bill sponsor, Republican Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, argued that most Ohioans “will concede executing an individual found to be suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime is neither fair nor just, and this punishment should be reserved for those who have intentionally done.”

A report by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University found that 75% of executions in 2015 involved defendants and situations of “crippling disabilities and uncertain guilt.”

Seven of the 28 cases examined surrounded individuals who were found to have serious mental illnesses. Additionally, five executed prisoners had experienced “extreme” childhood trauma or abuse.

One individual had been classified by the Veterans Administration as being 100% disabled due to severe PTSD resulting from his service in the Vietnam War.

Defendants found guilty of capital offenses who are found to have severe mental illnesses will still be given harsh sentences such as life in prison without parole or life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 or 30 years.

Proponents of the bill have stressed that people who commit crimes while being mentally ill will still be held responsible for their actions. However, they argue that treatment is a better option for these individuals than execution.

“The stigma of these illnesses is so misunderstood in the community,” Russell said. “When the law is broken, we’re not going to use mental health as an excuse. We send them to treatment facilities instead of prisons.”

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston

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