Tuesday, October 21, 2008

OpEd: Mental illness must be in consideration

Here's an OpEd from George Haley, a mental health advocate in Tennessee, in which he offers his perspective as to why the death penalty is inappropriate for offenders with severe mental illness. This appeared on October 16, 2008 in The Tennessean: http://www.tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20081016/OPINION01/810160338/1008.

In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly created a committee to examine Tennessee's death penalty system for fairness and accuracy. The committee will conclude its work in December 2008, issuing its recommendations to the legislature in January 2009.

Thus far, the committee has highlighted a number of serious problems, including the lack of adequate defense services for those charged with capital murder, the failure to collect and analyze critical information about death penalty trials and appeals, the lack of accurate information concerning the cost of the death penalty to taxpayers, as well as the number of inmates with severe mental illness on Tennessee's death row.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Atkins v. Virginia decision held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute defendants with mental retardation. In making this decision the court determined that the disabilities of those with mental retardation "do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability." Tennessee was one of 18 states that had already banned the death sentence for those with mental retardation prior to the Supreme Court decision.

Mentally ill not culpable

Currently, defendants diagnosed with severe mental illness are still eligible for the death penalty in Tennessee, even though the most severely mentally ill- those suffering from delusions, hallucinations, or significant disruptions of consciousness - are no more culpable than those with mental retardation. Though mental illness is a significant problem in our nation's prisons, only a small percentage of death row inmates suffered from the most severe mental illness at the time their crimes were committed.

Exempting the most seriously ill inmates from the death penalty does not exempt them from other penalties, such as life without parole or a life sentence. But, such an exemption does allow for a quicker resolution for victims' families while reducing the costs of lengthy appeals and providing a more humane approach toward those who are most ill.

In Tennessee, Richard Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a correctional officer - a crime committed only after prison officials stopped giving Taylor his anti-psychotic medication.

Over the next 20 years, Taylor stood trial twice despite his severe mental illness. Finally, in March 2008, Taylor's sentence was reversed by a Tennessee appeals court after he agreed to a life sentence in exchange for pleading guilty. Imagine the years of suffering for the victim's family and costs that could have been avoided if Taylor was ineligible for a death sentence and instead received a life sentence from the start. The state spent millions of dollars to seek death for a man who ultimately received a life sentence anyway. Regardless of one's feelings about the death penalty, Tennessee cannot afford to allow the execution of those with severe mental illness when less costly alternatives are available.

George Haley has served as president of NAMI-TN; chairman of the board oftrustees of Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute; chairman of the board ofdirectors of Park Center, a psycho-social rehabilitation center; and a memberof the Board of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign.

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