Fight looms over bill to ban death penalty for those with severe mental illness
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Efforts to ban the application of the death penalty to some people with severe mental illnesses ran into resistance Thursday, but the bill mustered just enough votes to be sent to the Kentucky Senate.
Afterward, the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, said the bill’s prospects appeared to have become “dimmer.” Westerfield, who supports the bill, put its chances of passing the Senate at “50-50,” adding: “I’m not as confident as I once was.”
The measure would block use of the death penalty for people who, at the time of the offense, have a documented history of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder.
“This is not, despite all the rhetoric we’ve been hearing, going to do away with the death penalty,” said Republican Rep. Chad McCoy, the bill’s lead sponsor. “It is a very, very narrow bill.”
The bill reflects a long-running goal of mental health advocates in Kentucky.
The measure drew opposition from prosecutors at the committee hearing Thursday.
Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron objected to the bill’s reference to a person’s documented history of disorders. He said it’s too “loose a term” that would cause more legal disputes in cases that already consume considerable time.
The bill’s critics worry that a decades-old diagnosis could prevent that person from being held accountable for a heinous crime later in life.
Disorders listed in the bill are seen frequently in criminal cases, and defense attorneys could try to have the proposal applied to existing death row cases if it becomes law, Cohron said.
“The odds of this not being challenged and litigated retroactively is zero,” he said.
Kentucky hasn’t carried out an execution since 2008 and currently has 26 inmates on death row.
McCoy said the bill applies only to future cases where the death penalty might be considered.
“I don’t think we could be more clear on the retroactivity,” McCoy told the committee.
Defendants with a history of having the disorders listed in the bill would still face severe punishment if the bill becomes law, he said.
“This is not a decision of whether somebody’s not going to be tried or not going to be punished,” McCoy said. “They’re still going to get life in prison without parole.”
The legislation is House Bill 148.