Mental Health Experts Say North Carolina Case Shows Need to Exempt Mentally Ill from Death Penalty

In North Carolina, Kristin Parks of Disability Rights N.C. and John Tote of the Mental Health Association-N.C. pointed to the case of Abdullah El-Amin Shareef as illustrating the need for a law exempting the mentall ill from the death penalty.  A jury recently sentenced Shareef to life in prison without parole in a case where prosecutors had sought the death penalty. In April 2004, Shareef committed a senseless crime that killed one man and injured three others, primarily because his paranoid schizophrenia went untreated. At the time, Shareef was declared incompetent to stand trial.  A psychiatrist described Shareef's behavior on the day of the incident as "the result of an extreme condition of psychosis."  Recently, a judge said he could now be tried after years of medication and treatment.  The authors of the op-ed in the Charlotte-Observer noted, "A death penalty trial is a long and heartbreaking experience for victims' families, and likely especially so when they want the offender executed but the verdict is life. In the Shareef trial, much pain and many resources could have been saved had a law that has been proposed in the General Assembly been in effect. "  

The proposed law allows a judge to take the death penalty off the table if attorneys present a compelling case of the defendant's mental illness at the time of the crime. With the death penalty out of the picture, murder victims' families would be spared years of death penalty trials and appeals and the state would have been spared tens of thousands of dollars.  A bill that would exempt offenders with serious mental illnesses is consistent with laws that have already been enacted to exempt the intellectually disabled and juveniles from the death penalty. It is also supported by prominent national groups such as the American Psychiatric and Psychological Association and the American Bar Association.  The authors point to the fact that 75% of Americans oppose execution people with serious mentally illness.

(K. Parks and J. Tote, "A better law for North Carolina," News-Observer, March 28, 2010, op-ed).  See also Mental Illness and Intellectual Disability.