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. Lori, you must really love wedding cake stories like this one ... happy enuf ending for you?

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