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Ohio Bill Would Bar Death Penalty For Defendants With 'Serious Mental Illness'

In this November 2005 file photo, Larry Greene, public information director of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, demonstrates how a curtain is pulled between the death chamber and witness room at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio.
Kiichiro Sato
Associated Press

A bill now in Ohio's Legislature would prevent people convicted of aggravated murder from being sentenced to the death penalty, if they are found to have had a "serious mental illness" at the time of the offense.

State Rep. Brett Hudson Hillyer (R-Uhrichsville), a primary sponsor of House Bill 136, testified last month before the House Criminal Justice Committee that the death penalty should be reserved for only the worst offenders, The Columbus Dispatch reported.

Hillyer said that while Ohioans may be split on the issue of legality concerning the death penalty, "most will concede executing an individual found to be suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the crime is neither fair nor just."

The bill has bipartisan support and support from mental health advocacy groups, including the Ohio Psychological Association, the Ohio Psychiatric Physician's Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio, according to the newspaper

Two criteria must apply for offenders to be deemed by professionals as having had a "serious mental illness," under the bill.

They must have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder. The condition also must have "significantly impaired the person's capacity to exercise rational judgment" in following the law, or understanding the consequences or wrongfulness of their actions at the time of the offense.

The condition in those cases wouldn't meet the standard for being found "not guilty by reason of insanity" or "incompetent to stand trial."

Under the bill, a capital defendant found to have had a "serious mental illness" when the crime was committed would not be sentenced to death. The sentence would instead be life in prison without parole, life in prison with parole eligibility after 25 or 30 years, or a special type of life sentence under the Sexually Violent Predator Sentencing Law.

Death row inmates would be able to petition for resentencing, if they had a "serious mental illness" at the time of the crime.

Prosecutors in Ohio have opposed the legislation. Allen County Prosecutor Juergen Waldick testified that courts would be overwhelmed by the resentencing portion of the bill.

He said it's "likely that every single person on death row would file such a motion," and that would create more litigation to confirm that a person was properly sentenced previously.

A proponent of the bill says supporters aren't asking that people not be responsible for their behavior.

"However, people with these mental illnesses don't always know what they're doing," said Terry Russell, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio. "We don't think it's ethically or morally right to take their life because of it."