The Columbus Dispatch
As Ohio takes a break from executions while questions surrounding the lethal drugs used in the process are hashed out, it’s a good time to consider ending execution of people who have serious mental illness.
Separate bills to enact such a ban are sitting in committees in the Ohio Senate and House of Representatives. They deserve consideration, and we hope they’ll see hearings soon.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s decision earlier this year to pause executions is in line with the nation’s changing view of capital punishment. DeWine, a former prosecutor generally regarded as a law-and-order politician, was responding to a U.S. magistrate’s opinion that the drugs currently used in executions could cause “senseless pain and needless suffering.” DeWine ordered that executions be halted until the state can find a drug or combination of drugs that a court would find constitutional.
Americans’ views on the matter, as measured by Gallup Inc., have evolved over the decades. In 1960, 53 percent supported the death penalty and 36 percent opposed it. As crime rates rose, support for capital punishment also rose and peaked at 80 percent in 1994. By October 2017 it had declined to 55 percent supporting and 41 percent opposing.
That change is attributed in part to the growing use of DNA evidence and its revelation of wrongful convictions of innocent defendants. But another key factor has been growing research into and understanding of mental illness and its role in criminal behavior.
People with mental illness should face consequences for harming others, and of course the public must be protected from people whose behavior is dangerous, whatever its motivation. But neither of those requires imposing the ultimate, irreversible penalty on someone who was too impaired to understand and control his actions or who is too ill after the fact to help defend himself in a trial.
Unfortunately, some research suggests that lingering misunderstanding and stigma associated with mental illness sometimes causes jurors to see the mentally ill as more deserving of capital punishment rather than less.
Barring execution of the mentally ill would fulfill a recommendation of the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task Force on the Administration of the Death Penalty, which completed its work in 2014.
If they want to avoid the moral catastrophe of an innocent person being killed in the public’s name, lawmakers also should consider other recommendations of the task force. For example, one would take the death penalty off the table in cases where prosecutors lack definitive evidence such as biological or DNA evidence linking the defendant to the crime, a videotaped voluntary confession or a video recording conclusively implicating the defendant.
For now, though, ending executions of people too ill to understand their actions should be an uncontroversial choice. Legislators of both parties have supported such a ban for years.
Some prosecutors oppose the change, saying courts would be overwhelmed by petitions for reconsideration from death-row inmates who wouldn’t qualify.
If so, that’s unfortunate but an acceptable price to pay for a morally repugnant practice that never should have been Ohio policy.