American Bar Association Issues White Paper Supporting Death Penalty Exemption for Severe Mental Illness

At a December 6-7 national summit on severe mental illness and the death penalty, the American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released a new white paper that it hopes will provide law makers with information and policy analysis to "help states pass laws that will establish clear standards and processes to prevent the execution of those with severe mental illness." The ABA does not take a position on the death penalty itself, but believes that "[i]ndividuals with severe mental disorders or disabilities ... should not be subject to capital punishment." The white paper describes the range of problems faced by seriously mentally ill defendants in capital cases and sets forth possible legislative approaches for exempting them from capital sanctions. The white paper, and ABA President-elect Hilarie Bass in her address to the summit, likened the diminished moral culpability of the severely mentally ill to that of two other "vulnerable groups"—juvenile offenders and defendants with intellectual disabilities—whom the court has exempted from the death penalty.  The application of the death penalty to these defendants, she said, "has been deemed unconstitutional because our society considers both groups less morally culpable than the 'worst of the worst' murderers for whom the death penalty is intended. They are less able to appreciate the consequences of their actions, less able to participate fully in their own defense and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. These exact characteristics apply to individuals with severe mental illness." Citing national polls in 2014 and 2015, Bass said the American public "support[s] a severe mental illness exemption from the death penalty by a 2 to 1 majority." At least 8 state legislatures are expected to consider serious mental illness exemptions in 2017. Among those states is Virginia, where just this year, a jury disregarded prosecution and defense experts in the death penalty trial of Russell Brown and found him guilty despite testimony that he was insane and did not understand the nature or consequences of his actions. The jury ultimately sentenced Brown to life in prison, but, as University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett explained, "there was no statutory protection available against the highest punishment for a man who, by the admission of all experts, did not have the highest culpability." As does the ABA, Professor Garrett argues that a serious mental illness exemption is a safeguard that is necessary to reduce unfairness in the administration of capital punishment. "If lawmakers believe that we should retain the death penalty in Virginia," he wrote, "we must be confident that we are not sentencing to death severely mentally ill people who cannot be fully blamed for their actions." 

("Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty," American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project, December 2016; H. Bass, "Remarks of Hilarie Bass President-elect of the American Bar Association Summit on Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty," American Bar Association, December 6, 2016; B. Garrett, "Severe mental illness and Virginia's death penalty," Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 3, 2016.) See Mental Illness.