Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Legislation Re Mental Illness & the Death Penalty Introduced in North Carolina

The News & Observer reports that lawmakers in North Carolina will consider legislation aimed at prohibiting the death penalty for offenders with severe mental illness ("Bill would ban execution of mentally ill killers," January 13, 2009).

Here's the full article:

A coalition of advocates for the mentally ill and a state Superior Court judge spoke in favor today of legislation that would exclude the severely mentally ill from the death penalty.

Draft legislation introduced at a joint legislative committee today would allow a judge to determine that a defendant suffered from severe mental illness at the time of the killing. The defendant would
still face a murder trial, but the worst punishment would be life without parole.

Advocates of the legislation say it would only apply to those with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or those with severe brain injuries. People whose criminal acts were the result of drug or alcohol abuse would not be eligible.

"We're talking about individuals whose distortion of thinking is so severe that it's difficult for us to imagine," said James Ellis, a University of New Mexico law professor who successfully argued to the U.S. Supreme Court several years ago that the mentally retarded should not be executed.

Superior Court Judge Carl Fox said the proposed law could save the state money by avoiding capital murder trials for the severely mentally ill. Capital trials are much more expensive because they require an additional defense attorney and defense experts, and typically take longer to try.

Today, North Carolina juries decide during the sentencing phase of a capital trial whether mental illness is a mitigating factor.

Connecticut is the only state to prohibit executing the mentally ill. Nearly 20 other states incorporate similar language in their statutes that set up the standards for being found not guilty by reason of insanity. Advocates say North Carolina's insanity standard is much stricter.

The joint committee will hear more information regarding the proposal at another meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Peg Dorer, director of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, said the group has not taken a position on the legislation, but she said the proposal is a bad idea.

She said it gives defendants too many opportunities to argue severe mental illness. If they do not get a favorable pretrial ruling, they still have the opportunity to persuade jurors during the sentencing phase and could continue to argue it on appeal.

"It's just dragging the whole system down," she said.

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