Soon no death penalty for the mentally ill in North Carolina?
Legislation excluding people with mental illness from the death penalty is picking up steam in North Carolina. After passing unanimously through a House Committee in April, the full House recently voted 84-31 in favor. It was a ringing – and bipartisan – endorsement.
The legislation has likely received such a warm reception because when severe mental illness is involved, capital trials, which are messy and complicated to begin with, get even messier and more complicated.
Mental illness can make it harder for defendants to receive a fair trial. They are more likely to make false confessions, may be unable to communicate fully with their attorneys or understand the charges they face. In several cases defendants have dismissed their attorneys to represent themselves in court, often inappropriately and with erratic results, like diagnosed schizophrenic Scott Panetti who called JFK, the Pope and Jesus Christ to speak in his defense. Panetti sits on death row to this day.
Also, the numerous appeals and hearings that can be expected in cases that involve a severely mentally ill defendant can prolong the pain of victims families, forcing them to repeatedly relive traumatic experiences while the justice they seek is put on hold.
If passed, the law will also take away the appeals process for those who plead insanity. Such appeals cost the state roughly $10,080 per hearing. Defendants can still be found guilty but the maximum sentence they could receive would be life without parole.
To meet the requirements outlined in the bill, defendants must have a documented history of severe, pervasive mental illness prior to committing the crime. As Representative Rick Glazier has said, “this is not the person who comes in and who is slightly depressed or ate a package of Twinkies that day and got a sugar high.”
The legislation now awaits a committee vote in the state Senate.