ILNews

Commission studies mental illness, death penalty

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2007
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Indiana could be the first state to bar the mentally ill from being executed, two recognized legal experts told a legislative commission Friday.

Of course, doing so would mean first agreeing on a definition for what "mentally ill" entails.

That was the topic discussed during the first legislative meeting of the Bowser Commission, the legislative interim study committee designed to study mental illness as it relates to the death penalty. The group was formed in recognition of the late Sen. Anita Bowser, D-Michigan City, who died in March and was a champion of death penalty laws.

Joseph Hoffman, acting executive associate dean at Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington, suggested that commission members examine capitol sentencing when mental illness arises at the time of legal proceedings, and how mental illness could be removed as a mitigator to instead serve as a barrier to the death penalty - similar to how mental retardation and juvenile status is treated.

He noted that guidance from the Supreme Court of the United States has been unclear on the issue of mental illness falling short of the legal definition.

To date, no state court or legislator has stopped executions of those dubbed mentally ill, Hoffmann said. Reasons are that this group of people is more difficult to define and there's not an agreed-upon definition, that a "slippery slope" exists in that courts could broadly interpret language, and that society overall is split on the topic of mental illness.

"We're all struggling with this issue, and there's a good reason why courts and legislators haven't addressed this," Hoffmann said.

Indiana Public Defender Council assistant director Paula Sites encouraged the study commission to consider a model bill that would define mental illness and bar the death penalty for those meeting that language. The proposal echoes one introduced earlier this year by Sen. Bowser before her death, but that bill did not make it out of its legislative committee.

As defined by the previous legislative language, a "mentally ill individual" means someone who, at the time of the offense, had a severe mental disorder or disability that significantly impaired the capacity to "appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person's conduct; exercise rational judgment in relation to the conduct; or conform the individual's conduct to the requirements of the law."

A court would have to order an evaluation of the defendant, and if that person was determined to be mentally ill, then a murder conviction could result in a prison term between 45 and 65 years - as is currently allowed by Indiana law.

Sites countered arguments about a "flood of litigation," citing the 1994 legislative changes championed by Sen. Bowser that barred the mentally retarded from being executed. That change happened eight years before guidance came from the SCOTUS, she noted, and since then only eight cases have raised that mental retardation defense.

"Indiana could be the first to do this," she said of a death penalty prohibition for the mentally ill. "Maybe they are less blameworthy, but by no means are they getting off scot-free. This death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst offenders."

Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood, said the language of "mental illness" gives him pause and he finds that mapping out a standard could be troubling. He asked what the differences would be for someone who stops taking anti-psychotic medication compared to someone who takes illegal substances such as methamphetamine.

That would be something the legislature could research in future meetings and eventually rely on criminal law foundations, she said.
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  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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