Five years after a statewide task force appointed to study Ohio’s death penalty released a report with 56 recommendations to improve the state’s deeply flawed system, the state may implement one of three recommendations for dealing with mentally ill defendants.
Of the three the task force suggested, which included enacting legislation to prohibit capital charges against defendants who suffered from “serious mental illness” at the time of the crime or at the time of execution, and would have required defendants representing themselves who are competent to stand trial but not competent to be their own lawyer to be appointed a lawyer to assist them, the legislature is considering the first.
Senate Bill 54, sponsored by state Sens. John Eklund, a Republican, and Sandra Williams, a Democrat, provides that no defendant with “serious mental illness at the time of the alleged commission of the offense” should be eligible for the death penalty. The bill specifies that the defendant must be diagnosed with one of five mental illnesses including schizoaffective, bipolar, major depressive, or delusional disorders, or schizophrenia. Evidence would be presented at a pretrial hearing and a judge would determine whether the accused would be eligible for the death penalty.
It’s a small step but it’s a start. As the Akron Beacon Journal asks, “What good is achieved by executing a man or woman suffering from severe mental illness at the time of the crime?” While the real question is what good is achieved by executing any human being, this would be an important advance in dealing with mentally ill defendants in the criminal justice system.