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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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

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  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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