Home Law Death Penalty Task Force proposes new ban on executions of the mentally ill

Death Penalty Task Force proposes new ban on executions of the mentally ill

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The Ohio joint task force to review the administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty found a new initiative in their tireless quest for remedying their system: to advocate for the mentally ill.

The joint task force, composed of legal experts pulled from the Ohio State Bar Association and Ohio Supreme Court, have been studying Ohio’s application of the death penalty since November.

On Sept. 26, the panel voted in a 15-2 decision to recommend a ban on death sentences for people with severe mental illness. Their proposal will be submitted to Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly in 2014, who will then decide whether or not to turn the proposals into law.

Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Ohio, called executions of the mentally ill “inhumane,” and a “matter of common decency.” The Supreme Court excludes most juveniles from a death sentence, yet has difficulty applying the same standard to those who have a distorted interpretation of reality.

The task force is not advocating for every severely mentally ill criminal to go without qualified punishment; rather, they want to evaluate the cases more closely and decide if another punishment is more suitable. The panel will encourage the General  Assembly to create a law that inhibits the death penalty from being sentenced to an individual with a diagnosable, severe mental illness at the time he or she commits the crime.

Some executions of the mentally ill are downright violations to the standards of the courts of laws. John Ferguson was executed on Aug. 5, 2013 in Florida. Ferguson was delusional, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and experienced visual hallucinations. Mental health care professionals described him as “dangerous and can not be released under any circumstances.”

Florida courts require that an inmate have a rational understanding of why someone is being executed, and for Ferguson, that is certainly not the case. Ferguson believed he was the “Prince of God” and was being executed so he can save the world.

The execution of Edwin Turner raises a question if executing the mentally ill is cruel and unusual punishment. When Turner was executed in 2012, his lawyer pointed out that his mental illness impaired his ability to rationally process information, to make reasonable judgments and to control his impulses.

By executing Turner, his lawyer reasoned that the Courts established a precedent that suggested the executions were “contrary to consensus of moral values, and that it would be cruel and unusual punishment.”

In 2002, the Supreme Court banned the execution of mentally disabled criminals. In 2005, justices found that it was also unconstitutional to put juvenile criminals to death.

The push for banning executions of the mentally ill is not fully backed by all task force members. Some members of the task force still have reservations about the proposal. They are concerned that the ban would cloud a system that would “produce more layers of litigation in capital cases,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Josh Deters.

The task force also is concerned about what validates as a “severe” mental illness. In the psychiatric world, mental illness is more diagnosed today than ever in history.

However, it is important to remember that the task forces proposals have no force of law. The recommendations merely point out existing flaws in the system.

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