COLUMBUS — A bill working its way through the state legislature seeks to prevent a death sentence for killers with a “serious mental illness.”
House Bill 136, which has bipartisan support, aims to prevent a death sentence in cases of aggravated murder in which the offender is deemed by professionals to have had a serious mental illness at the time of the offense.
Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer, a Uhrichsville Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor, testified last month before the House Criminal Justice Committee, saying the death penalty should be reserved for only the worst offenders.
“Ohioans may be split on the issue of legality concerning the death penalty,” he said, “but most will concede executing an individual found to be suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime is neither fair nor just, and this punishment should be reserved for those who have intentionally done.”
Ohio prosecutors have opposed the legislation throughout the process. Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick testified that the resentencing provision will overwhelm the courts.
“Proponents have argued that they believe only a few people on death row would meet the standards provided by the bill,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is likely that every single person on death row would file such a motion. This would create even more litigation just to confirm that the person was properly sentenced 10, 15 or 20 years ago.”
The bill has support from several mental health advocacy groups, including the Ohio Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychiatric Physician’s Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio (NAMI Ohio).
“We are not asking for people to not be responsible for their behavior,” said Terry Russell, executive director of NAMI Ohio. “However, people with these mental illnesses don’t always know what they’re doing. We don’t think it’s ethically or morally right to take their life because of it.”
The bill gives two criteria for deciding whether a person has a “serious mental illness,” both of which must apply. The first is that a person must be diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder.
Second, at the time of the murder, the person’s condition must have “significantly impaired the person’s capacity to exercise rational judgment” in following the law, or appreciating the consequences or wrongfulness of their actions. The condition in these cases would not meet the standard to be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” or “incompetent to stand trial.”
The diagnosis of one of the listed conditions can come before or after the murder in question. Having the diagnosis after the fact does not prevent the person from proving that he or she had a “serious mental illness” at the time of the crime.
Under the bill’s provisions, if a capital defendant is found to have had a “serious mental illness” when he committed the crime, he cannot be sentenced to death.
Instead, the judge handing down the sentence must give the person life in prison without parole, life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 or 30 years, or a special type of life sentence under the Sexually Violent Predator Sentencing Law.
In addition, the law allows death row inmates to petition for resentencing if they had a serious mental illness when they committed their crimes. If successful, those inmates would be given a life sentence instead.
Proponents still stand behind the bill.
“The stigma of these illnesses is so misunderstood in the community,” Russell said. “When the law is broken, we’re not going to use mental health as an excuse. We send them to treatment facilities instead of prisons.”