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Bill would limit death penalty cases for mentally ill

Messenger-Inquirer - 1/6/2019

Jan. 06--A bill filed by a member of the state Senate's Republican leadership team would prevent people with certain diagnosed mental disorders from being subjected to the death penalty.

The bill was filed by Sen. Julie Raque Adams, a Louisville Republican and caucus chair for the Senate's Republican majority.

The head of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty said he has confidence the bill will pass if it is called for consideration in the upcoming legislative session that starts Tuesday. But the head of the Kentucky Association of Commonwealth Attorneys said the bill is unnecessary because there is already a system in place to determine if a person is too mentally ill to face the death penalty.

Adams' bill would exempt a person from the death penalty if "at the time of the offense" the person had a "serious mental illness" as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Mental disorders that would exempt a person from the death penalty include schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and delusional disorder.

If the disorder were caused by alcohol or drug use, or was "manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct," it would not be exempt under Adams' bill.

The Rev. Patrick Delahanty, a Catholic priest and head of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Adams proposed the same bill last year, but it was never called to the full Senate for a vote.

"(Adams) is in leadership, so I do have a feeling that bill will get out of the Senate," Delahanty said. The bill should have support in the House of Representatives, given public opposition to executing the mentally ill, Delahanty said.

"I have some inside polling data that shows ... a very high percentage don't want mentally ill people executed," he said.

Currently, "there nothing in the law that prevents (putting) mentally ill people on death row," he said.

There will also likely be a bill filed to abolish the death penalty entirely, but he didn't know if such a bill would be heard in committee, he said.

Of Adams' bill, Delahanty said, "I'm hoping to see it pass. It's not the ideal, (but) we could limit the number of people we end up putting on death row."

Shane Young, commonwealth's attorney for Hardin County and head of the commonwealth's attorneys association, said issues in the bill are already addressed in the court system, either through a ruling on a person's competency to stand trial or by juries.

A person judged incompetent to stand trial cannot be prosecuted until they are made competent through medication or treatment. For people who are found competent to stand trial, whether a person is found to be "guilty or mentally ill" is a jury question, he said.

"There's already a process built in for determining mental illness," Young said. If a person is competent to stand trial, an argument of mental illness is "an affirmative defense" that can be used in court.

"Even if someone is found guilty of murder, mental illness is a (mitigating factor) and is presented in the sentencing phase," Young said. Adams' bill would take the decision away from juries, he said.

"It's just essentially advocacy groups trying to take power away from juries, and away from people, because they don't agree with" the death penalty, he said.

Delahanty said "a lot of mentally ill people are quite competent, (but) that doesn't mean they aren't mentally ill." Competency in Kentucky is defined as whether a person understands the charges against them and can participate in their defense.

"Severe mental illness is to the degree where the person doesn't have culpability," Delahanty said. "They can't make a rational decision." He said he was for accountability for people who commit serious crimes, and the public should be protected from people with severe mental illnesses who are found to be dangerous.

Delahanty said he is hopeful Adams' bill will receive attention from legislators during the upcoming session.

"It's a short session ... but we think we'll make some progress," Delahanty said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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