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People with severe mental illness should not face death penalty

Idaho State Journal - 4/3/2018

Our system of justice has long recognized that the death penalty ought to be imposed only on the “worst of the worst” individuals in society.

For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that death cannot be justly imposed on persons who have reduced moral culpability for their acts — exempting children from capital punishment in Roper v. Simmons (2005), and persons with intellectual disabilities in Atkins v. Virginia (2002).

As criminal defense and appellate attorneys with over 60 years of practice in Idaho and as members of the Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, we can say with confidence that the execution of individuals with severe mental illness is as grave an injustice as executing children and people with intellectual disabilities.

Our legislators must grapple with this pressing issue and eliminate a bygone practice that conflicts with our evolving standards of decency and the prevailing scientific understanding of mental health.

Severe mental illnesses are characterized by mental impairments that distort one’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction. These illnesses, which disproportionately affect veterans and low-income Idahoans, inhibit the rational decision-making process that most of us take for granted in every aspect of our daily lives.

Despite this, and contrary to popular opinion, it is important to note that there is no connection between mental illness and an increased propensity for violence — in fact, persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators.

However, for the very small subset of Idahoans with severe mental illness who do end up committing a capital crime, existing legal protections and safeguards are woefully inadequate.

In almost all respects, our justice system consistently fails people with mental illness due to the lack of preventative treatment options, limited access to mental health courts, and restricted treatment options while incarcerated.

Over the course of our careers, we personally experienced that our justice system fails to sufficiently take mental illness into account, including death-row inmates who struggled to comprehend their impending deaths nor fully understand the reasons why they were being punished.

These experiences solidified my conviction that a sentence of death serves no legitimate purpose and undermines the administration of justice when imposed on people suffering from severe mental illness.

Given their impairments, defendants with severe mental illnesses, by definition, have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to analyze and learn from their mistakes, to control their impulses, and, simply, to keep in touch with reality.

These unique psychological traits are similar to the characteristics observed in juveniles and individuals with intellectual disability that led the Supreme Court to take the death penalty off the table for these two categories of offenders.

Our legislators ought to draw the obvious and proper moral parallel by exempting those with severe mental illnesses from the death penalty. Doing so would also raise awareness of mental health in Idaho and divert valuable taxpayer dollars to higher-priority programs, like mental health treatment and victim’s compensation funds.

The Idaho Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Death Penalty Exemption (IASMIE) is working to correct this alarming injustice.

IASMIE is currently in the process of submitting legislation that would take death off the table for defendants who had a severe mental illness at the time of their crime.

This law would not mean that defendants with severe mental illness go unpunished for their crimes. Indeed, under this law, if a claim of severe mental illness was successfully litigated, the defendant would still face a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. It’s a similarly consequential sentence that will ensure justice for victims and their family members, while respecting the demands of justice, decency, and the Constitution.

Our association joins the majority of Americans in declaring that it is morally and legally impermissible to execute people suffering from severe mental illness.

The death penalty was intended to be levied against the most blameworthy among us, not those in the throes of mania, hallucinations, and delusions.

In light of current legal shortcomings, the evolving constitutional landscape, and corresponding legislative progress in eight states, it is imperative that lawmakers in Idaho take common sense action by passing an exemption to the death penalty for those who suffered from severe mental illness at the time of their crimes.


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