May 13, 2007
Limit to death penalty sought
Bill would protect the mentally ill
Andrea Weigl, News & Observer
James Floyd Davis was sentenced to death for killing three people during a
workplace shooting more than a decade ago at a Buncombe County tool plant.
At least one psychiatrist has concluded that Davis was experiencing paranoid
delusions and believed he was waging a "holy war" against co-workers
conspiring against him.
A bill pending before the legislature would allow Davis, 59, who was
diagnosed in 1973 as schizophrenic, to use his delusions at the time of the
killings to try to have his death sentence overturned.
State Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat, has proposed allowing
defendants with severe mental illness to avoid the death penalty if they
were too mentally ill to understand their actions at the time of their
crimes. The defendant could either ask a judge to rule on the issue before
trial or ask a jury to consider it during the trial's sentencing. Those
already on death row could file an appeal.
Kinnaird said the bill does not allow these defendants to avoid prosecution
or punishment; they could still be charged and face spending the rest of
their lives in prison.
But prosecutors oppose the bill, saying the measure is so broad that it
could be applied to all murder defendants facing the death penalty.
"Every time, some hired gun comes in and espouses there's mental illness,"
said Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, whose office prosecuted
Davis. "We haven't tried anyone capitally in this state without some kind of
The bill does not say which diagnoses qualify someone as being severely
mentally ill. Rather, the bill defines severe mental illness as someone
being unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct, to use
rational judgment or to conform their conduct to the law. Each side is
likely to present competing testimony from mental health experts, and the
question would be decided by a judge or a jury.
Moore said the jury in Davis' trial considered evidence about his mental
illness and still sentenced him to death. Moore said a psychiatrist recently
found Davis competent enough to fire his lawyers and drop his appeals. He
described Davis as "lucid" and "articulate" during recent court hearings.
The rationale behind the bill is similar to successful efforts in recent
years to outlaw the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded: a
killer's young age, limited mental functioning and severe mental illness
make them less culpable for their crimes and not deserving of the death
"By a certain reasoning, people with certain mental illnesses can be held
responsible, but they aren't the worst of the worst because of the illness
that they have," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death
Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit anti-death penalty group based in
Mental health advocates agree, saying the bill extends the protection
already available to those who are mentally retarded to those with severe
"These people probably have no real understanding of what occurred," said
Julia Leggett, a lobbyist for the Alliance for Disability Advocates.
A few states eyeing it
North Carolina is one of at least three states, including Indiana and
Washington, considering such a proposal. Connecticut is the only state that
has such a law.
In a poll earlier this spring, 52 percent of 574 North Carolina voters
surveyed said they would not support the death penalty for those with severe
mental disability. The poll was released by N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive
think tank, that hired Public Policy Polling to conduct the survey, which
had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Last year, the American Bar Association, as well as The American Psychiatric
Association and the American Psychological Association, passed identical
resolutions about mentally ill defendants and the death penalty. The
resolutions said defendants should not be executed if they had severe mental
illness at the time of the crime or if their illness prevents them from
helping their lawyers handle their appeals, leads them to give up their
appeals or makes them unable to understand the purpose of their execution.
North Carolina's legislation does not go that far.
But at least one of Davis' lawyers hopes the bill could help Davis and
others on death row.
"There is a significant number on death row who are suffering from mental
illness," Asheville lawyer Leah Broker said. "I don't think they got fair
trials, especially in my client's case. It would give another avenue for
She said Davis' trial lawyers didn't present enough evidence about his
history of mental illness that she believes could have swayed jurors. Davis'
appeal based on those issues was filed in 2000 and has never been heard, she
On May 17, 1995, Davis killed co-workers Gerald Allman, Frank Knox and
Anthony Balogh and injured Larry Codgill. Davis had been fired two days
before the shooting. Knox's widow, Phyllis Knox, declined to comment about
the legislation, although she has previously said she opposes the death
Source : News & Observer