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Bill would exempt mentally ill from death penalty

RICHMOND — A Senate committee has agreed to advance a bill that would protect individuals with a severe mental illness from the receiving the death penalty.

On a 8-6 vote Monday, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee approved SB 1137, which states that “a defendant in a capital case who had a severe mental illness as defined in the bill, at the time of the offense is not eligible for the death penalty.”

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Favola, D-Arlington, is being considered by the full Senate this week.

The bill would establish procedures for determining mental illness (such as expert evaluators), would require judges and juries to take illness into account in sentencing procedures and would mandate that it is the responsibility of the defendant to prove his severe mental illness by a “preponderance of evidence.”

Under current Virginia law, the jury can take mental illness into consideration when deciding to apply the death penalty.  This bill aims to remove the option of the death penalty for those with a proven severe mental illness.

“This is really a sentencing bill,” Favola. “It doesn’t say that the person would have to be ruled not guilty.”

Thirty states have the death penalty. According the  Death Penalty information Center, Virginia carried out the second highest number of executions, 113, since 1976, coming in second to Texas, which carried out 558 executions.

In 2017, Virginia executed two inmates and has three prisoners on death row.

“The U.S Supreme Court over time has issued decisions that really talk about culpability and the fact that the death penalty should only be applied when an individual has full understanding of his actions and consequences,” Favola said.

In the 2002 case of Atkins v. Virginia, the court maintained that the legal execution of defendants with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that applying the death penalty to defendants 18 years of age or younger was “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore prohibited by the U.S Constitution.

However, there is no federal law or ruling that extends that protection to individuals who have been deemed to have a severe mental illness, despite pressure from medical associations and human rights groups.

Mental illness “is a whole category that has never really been dealt with by the courts and needs to be dealt with by this legislation,” Sen. John Edwards, D–Roanoke, told the Courts of Justice Committee. “I think this is an important bill.”

Organizations supporting the legislation included the Virginia Catholic Conference, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, Mental Health America of Virginia and the Disability Law Center of Virginia.

Speaking in opposition to the bill was John Mahoney of the Virginia Association of Commonwealth Attorneys. Mahoney said the measure is equivalent to “attacking the death penalty from the sides” and would “take things out of the hands of the jury.”

“We see this as making cases unendable,” Mahoney said. “The whole focus, then, is going to be mental health and what is a mental illness.”

By Jayla Marie McNeill/Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.

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