COLUMBUS — Convicted murderers with a severe mental illness will no longer receive the death penalty in Ohio.
House Bill 136, which will go into effect on April 12, prohibits the death penalty for aggravated murder if the person is mentally ill at the time of the offense.
To be exempt from the death penalty, they would need a diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder or delusional disorder. This diagnosis can occur after the murder but it would need to be proved the mental illness impaired them at the time of the crime.
This is the first legislation of its kind in the nation.
Someone with a serious mental illness can still be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Those currently on death row will have the ability to seek removal from death row if they had one of the specific serious mental illnesses at the time of the offense. If the offender chooses to seek removal from death row, they must agree to life without parole.
Sen. Hearcel Craig (D-Columbus) and Sen. Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) both co-sponsored the bill.
“People who commit a crime and have a serious mental illness should not be put to death,” Craig said by email. “I cosponsored this important legislation to make our criminal justice laws fairer and more just.”
Craig also cosponsors Senate Bill 296, which would abolish the death penalty entirely.
“This legislation creates more protections for those with severe mental illnesses. It establishes a new process for considering these cases that is neither a defense or a plea,” he said by email. “It treats mental illness as a medical condition, not a crime.”
Craig said prison reform has a long battle ahead but this bill is a step in the right direction for the state.
“Mental health takes an incredible toll on individuals, which is reflected in our prison population,” Craig said by email. “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 14 percent of prisoners met the threshold for serious psychological distress compared to only 5 percent of the general population.”
Manning said HB 136 is well thought out.
“We listened to the mental health experts. We’re looking at people that have a severe, severe mental illness that is not their fault,” he said. “Still, they’re a danger to society, they did something horrific.”
The bill will use a pretrial motion to hold a hearing on whether or not the defendant suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of the alleged crime. If the court determines they did suffer from a mental illness at the time of the crime, a finding will be issued the defendant is eligible for the death penalty.
Manning said that while mental illnesses can be shown as a mitigating circumstance, studies show it can make a jury more likely to opt for the death sentence.
Found in the 1980s, Ohioans to Stop Executions is an organization fighting to end the death penalty in the state.
Hannah Kubbins, the executive director, said the group has supported the bill since its inception.
“It’s the first legislation of its kind in the nation, that’s really significant. The bill itself recognizes that those with serious mental illness at the time of the commission of the crime should not be considered deserving of the death penalty,” she said. “Because given these illnesses and being in that state at the commission of the crime, they lack the judgment, the understanding or self-control to be subject to such an ultimate punishment.”
While the bill offers reform and was needed, Kubbins said, it addresses only one aspect of the broken criminal justice system.
“The system as a whole is not fixable. It’s wasting the public’s limited tax dollars while providing no benefits,” she said. “As it pertains to the death penalty, there’s just not a reform in my mind that would make the system workable.”
Kubbins said other states such as Connecticut and Maryland tried to address the death penalty with reform but ultimately repealed it.
Ohio’s last execution was in July 2018. Once in office, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered Ohio prisons to seek alternative lethal injection drugs.
DeWine recently told the Associated Press there will not be any executions in 2020.
Manning said the state doesn’t have access to the drugs necessary to put someone to death in a moral way.
“We need to start talking about stopping or talking about other avenues to put people to death. Why are we putting victims’ families through this process?” he said. “Why are we spending taxpayer money on something that literally can’t be done right now under current law?”
Manning said it’s not a pleasant conversation and many feel passionate on both sides, however, it’s something that must be addressed.
Kubbins said no other western countries will supply the country with drugs for lethal injection.
“We’re trying to get back on the road to economic recovery during a pandemic with people still dying,” she said. “I don’t think the legislature has the appetite to discuss alternative methods. It’s just a conversation that sucks so much air out of the room and just eats all these resources.”