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In the crosshairs of conscience: John Kitzhaber's death penalty reckoning

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To cope with his dread, John Kitzhaber opened his leather-bound journal and began to write.
It was a little past 9 on the morning of Nov. 22, 2011. Gary Haugen had dropped his appeals. A Marion County judge had signed the murderer's death warrant, leaving Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, to decide Haugen's fate. The 49-year-old would soon die by lethal injection if the governor didn't intervene.
Kitzhaber was exhausted, having been unable to sleep the night before, but he needed to call the families of Haugen's victims.
"I know my decision will delay the closure they need and deserve," he wrote.
The son of University of Oregon English professors, Kitzhaber began writing each day in his journal in the early 1970s. The practice helped him organize his thoughts and, on that particular morning, gather his courage.
Kitzhaber first dialed the widow of David Polin, an inmate Haugen beat and stabbed to death in 2003 while already serving a life sentence fo…

Murderers with mental illnesses may be spared execution in Ohio

Ohio lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit executing offenders who suffer from a serious mental illness, under certain conditions.

A bill introduced this week by state Sens. John Eklund, R-Chardon, and Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, would take death sentences off the table for those who show they suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime. Likewise, inmates on Death Row would have a mechanism for being re-sentenced to life in prison if they can show they suffered from major depression, schizophrenia or another serious mental illness at the time they committed their crimes, according to Senate Bill 40.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities and juveniles are currently exempt from capital punishment.

"No less than juveniles or the mentally disabled, persons with serious mental illness lack the culpability normally associated with death penalty offenses even if they cannot meet the exacting standards of 'not guilty by reason of insanity' - a defense which if proved, prohibits any punishment on the offender," according to the Ohio Alliance for the Mental Illness Exemption, which is urging support of SB40.

In April 2014, the 22-member Ohio Supreme Court Death Penalty Task Force recommended the most sweeping overhaul to capital punishment the state has seen in 30 years. Among its 56 recommendations in a 76-page report: prohibit executions of mentally ill prisoners.

Ohio adopted its current death penalty statute in 1981. It has executed 53 men since executions resumed in 1999. Mental Health America estimates that 20 % of all death row inmates suffer from a severe mental illness.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said 46 of the 138 inmates on Death Row are receiving mental health treatment and 22 of the 46 are designated as seriously mentally ill. Data on how many of them had the mental health issue at the time of their crimes was not available.

State Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp., who supports ending capital punishment, said "I understand that repealing the death penalty is a controversial issue, but I hope we can come to a consensus that at the very least those people with serious mental illnesses should not be executed."

The Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association has been an ardent supporter of maintaining the death penalty.

Megan Testa, a forensic psychiatrist and a member of the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association, said the association backs SB40 because it establishes procedures for considering reduced culpability for offenders suffering for severe mental illnesses when they commit crimes.

Source: Dayton Daily News, February 18, 2017

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