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. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.