Sunday, 1 July 2007

An exemption from death penalty?

Dale Moss

INDIANAPOLIS – The U.S. Supreme Court last week clarified that courts must weigh the mental health of death row inmates before their execution to ensure that they understand why they're being punished and the punishment's connection with their crimes.

But in Indiana this year, state lawmakers will take the debate a step further.

A study committee will take testimony on the larger issue of whether defendants who were severely mentally ill at the time of their crimes should face the death penalty at all.
It's a controversial topic, but banning the death penalty for such defendants has support among mental health professionals and the American Bar Association. Still, no states with the death penalty have been so restrictive.

In Indiana, the study committee grows out of legislation that was debated in a Senate committee this year but which never came to a vote. Sen. Anita Bowser sponsored the legislation only a couple of months before she lost a battle with breast cancer.
Then and now, the bill seems to have little chance of passage. The death penalty remains a popular choice in Indiana for the most heinous criminals.

But Bowser had been successful before, helping to persuade fellow lawmakers -- even as a member of the Senate's Democratic minority -- that the state shouldn't be executing minors or defendants with mental retardation.
Indiana did both before the U.S. Supreme Court acted to ban such executions nationwide.
The debate about the mentally ill could prove more difficult, however. Mental illness is not well understood and can occur in so many variations and levels of severity that creating an overall policy will likely prove difficult.

In the Senate debate this year, defenders of the mentally ill argued that -- like defendants with mental retardation -- those with severe disorders such as schizophrenia and delusions can't exercise rational judgment or understand their crime.

"These people are not likely to be deterred by the death penalty," Philip Coons, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the Indiana University Medical Center, said then. "Because of their illness, these people are simply not the worst of the worst," the criminals for which the death penalty was intended.
Some committee members were skeptical. They worried that defendants would try to use mental illness to escape execution. But Coons told the committee that faking is rare and easily detectable.

Others said only defendants who suffered severe, persistent mental health problems would likely qualify under any resulting law. Psychologist Carla Gaff-Clark told the committee that definition would apply to 5 to 10 percent of death row inmates.

No members have yet been assigned to the study committee -- aptly named the Bowser Commission -- and the group probably won't begin meeting for a month or two. But it's clear they'll have much to discuss.

Lesley Stedman Weidenbener's column appears on Sundays. Reach her at (317) 444-2780 or Her mailing address is 200 W. Washington St., Suite M11, Indianapolis, Ind. 46204.

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