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June 25, 2017

Could mental illness be the next big battle-front in debates over capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article headlined "He’s a killer set to die. But his mental illness has set off a new death penalty battle."  Here are excerpts:

Someone was trying to kill him. William C. Morva was certain of it.  He couldn’t breathe and he was withering away, he told his mother in a jailhouse call.

“Somebody wants me to die and I don’t know who it is,” he said.  “They know my health is dwindling, okay?” He sounded paranoid. His voice grew more frantic with each call over several months on the recorded lines.

“How much more time do you think my body has before it gives out?” he asked just months before he escaped from custody, killing an unarmed guard and later a sheriff’s deputy before his capture in woods near Virginia Tech’s campus.

Morva faces execution July 6 for the 2006 killings. With the date looming, Morva’s family, friends and lawyers are pressing for clemency from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in what has become a broader national push to eliminate capital punishment for people with severe mental illnesses such as Morva’s delusional disorder....

The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled that juveniles, whose brains are not fully developed, and people with intellectual disabilities are not eligible for the death penalty.  Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana, have introduced bills that would expand the prohibition to people with severe mental illnesses.

A vote on an Ohio measure pending in the state legislature is expected this fall.  It is backed by a coalition of providers of mental-health services, social justice groups, religious leaders, former state Supreme Court justices and former Republican governor Bob Taft.  The bills address punishment, not guilt or innocence.  If lawmakers in Columbus sign off on the measure, Ohio would become the first state to pass an exclusion for severe mental illness among the 31 that retain the death penalty....

Advocates for reform say the penalty was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality, and that jurors often misunderstand mental illness.  The reformers’ efforts have met with resistance mostly from prosecutors and law enforcement officials who say jurors already can factor in mental illness at sentencing and that the exemptions are too broad.

June 25, 2017 at 10:10 PM | Permalink



As a matter of law, "people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality" are not supposed to be subject to any criminal sanction.

The fact that these folks are, only, trying to apply that to the death penalty means that it is just anti death penalty legislation.

The prosecutors and law enforcement are correct, we already do evaluate those isues.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jun 26, 2017 8:30:21 AM

This is funny. You have delusional lawyers ruling on the fate of a delusional defendant. These Justices believe minds can be read, the future forecast, and that standards of conduct should be based on the ethos of a fictional character. Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo. Ding.

Then believe that factors that make the defendant 10 times more dangerous than normal defendants are mitigating factors. Then they do not understand the biggest mental factor in criminality is antisocial personality disorder, one of the most validated diagnosis, even with its own unique physiological test.

This would be a funny movie, except that their awful decisions and their awful intellect result in the murder of thousands of people a year, most of whom are innocent people.

Posted by: David Behar | Jun 26, 2017 11:17:04 AM

Different degrees of mental disability very well still leaves you open to criminal sanction, putting aside what is "supposed" to happen. The question then is what punishment is justified, including questions of mitigation.

Posted by: Joe | Jun 26, 2017 11:45:23 AM

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