Capital Punishment in the United States Explained

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Ohio: House Bill would keep mentally ill from death row

For the 2nd year in a row, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney's Association voiced strong opposition to a bill that would keep severely mentally ill people from being executed on death row.

If passed, House Bill 81 would bar the possibility of the death penalty for people who can prove they had a serious mental illness when they committed aggravated murder. The maximum penalty would be a life sentence. The proposal also would permit for current death row inmates to apply for resentencing.

John Murphy, executive director of the organization, said the bill would allow countless criminals to avoid the death penalty by claiming mental illness at the time of the crime. He said the bill is redundant when considering current Ohio law and court precedent.

"If this were enacted, I think it would in effect repeal the death penalty," Murphy said. "Proponents argue that the process would apply to very few persons - we don't see it that way. I think every single one of the persons on death row will file for this."

Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who sponsored the legislation, said the bill came as a result of an Ohio Supreme Court joint task force recommendation. The recommendation implores lawmakers to enact legislation that would exclude defendants from the death penalty who were afflicted by "serious mental illness" at the time of the crime.

"I guess they're fixated on executing the mentally ill," Seitz said.

Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, said the bill does well to recognize that people with severe mental illnesses shouldn't be executed. It doesn't take anything away from prosecutors, he said, instead allowing for more options and convictions.

Currently 139 people are on death row in Ohio, according to figures from the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. Only 1 of those inmates is female. Ohio has carried out 53 executions since the state resumed them in 1999. The state has killed a total of 393 convicted murders in its history.

Early in 1999, Jay Scott, a diagnosed schizophrenic, was the 1st person executed against his will since capital punishment resumed. A contentious legal battle preceded the execution as his lawyers fought and won appeals in both state and federal courts. The Ohio Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court upheld a state law that allowed executions as long as the prisoner understands he will die as punishment for his crimes.

Seitz said his bill is an attempt to address current law, which he called inadequate. Following one of the recommendations of the task force, Seitz's bill considers the defendant's state of mind at the time of the crime. He said he worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to craft the bill.

Current law, according to Murphy, adequately considers mental illness and retardation during the trial and sentencing. He said House Bill 81 expands the definition beyond what's necessary, effectively making the death penalty null and shifting the burden to the state to disprove the defendant's claims.

Seitz said that without reining in the death penalty, the state will lose it. The bill is an attempt to protect a vulnerable population from being unfairly sentenced to death.

"We think this is an appropriate and needed change to Ohio's Revised Code," Werner said. "This is the direction our society is moving in."

Source: Columbus Dispatch, June 7, 2017

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