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Criminals suffering from mental illness may receive execution exemption

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Convicted criminals who are judged to have serious mental illnesses may be exempt from the death penalty if Ohio Senate Bill 162 passes.

Ohio would become the second state with a law of this nature if the bill were to pass, following in the footsteps of Connecticut.

SB 162 was heard by the Ohio Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Oct. 21. Despite being a controversial issue, no testimony from opposition groups, namely the Ohio Prosecutor’s Association, was either heard or submitted, according to Betsy Johnson, associate executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio.

The proposed bill comes at a time when discussion of criminal justice reform is in the forefront of many Ohio legislators’ minds. With the recent halting of executions in Ohio and the discussion of reform spurred by the formation of Ohio’s recodification committee, criminal justice reform has become a high priority in the minds of voters.

“I think it (SB 162) gives us mental health advocates the opportunity to educate legislators about serious mental illness and make the case that even though you have a mental illness it doesn’t mean that you somehow shouldn’t be held accountable for your actions,” Johnson said. “It does mean that people struggling with this disease have unusual sets of circumstances.”

The term mental illness would include diagnoses that are associated with delusions, hallucinations, extremely disorganized thinking or significant disruption of consciousness, memory and perception of the environment, according to a statement from the Ohio Alliance for the Mental Illness Exemption.

The OAMIE statement said this would not give convicted criminals complete exemption from the law, only exemption from the death penalty.

“A mental illness is not an excuse for criminal behavior,” OAMIE said in a statement. “Such individuals should still be tried, convicted, and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, including life in prison.”

Although no opponents of the bill spoke out at the hearing, there has been vocal opposition from prosecutors across Ohio.

“This bill expands mental illness considerations far beyond what is necessary and will bar consideration of the death penalty in inappropriate circumstances,” John Murphy, lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, told the Associated Press.

Connecticut’s similar rule exempts a capital defendant from the death penalty if his or her “mental capacity was significantly impaired or ability to conform conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired but not so impaired in either case as to constitute a defense to prosecution,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union website.

The proposition of this bill puts Ohio in the small league of states who have introduced legislation regarding death penalty exemption for those with mental illnesses, alongside Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“I know for a fact that NAMI National is watching this with close eyes for that very purpose — to share what we do in Ohio here with other states,” Johnson said.

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