July 1, 2007
An exemption from death penalty?
Lesley Stedman Weidenbener, Courier-Journal
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
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
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
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
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.
Source : Courier-Journal (Lesley Stedman Weidenbener'
Sundays. Reach her at (317) 444-2780 or lstedman@courier-
mailing address is 200 W. Washington St., Suite M11, Indianapolis, Ind.
46204. Comment on this column, and read her previous columns, at