The Kentucky State Senate has given final legislative approval to a bill that would make the Commonwealth the second U.S. state to bar the execution of people with serious mental illness.

On March 25, 2022, the Republican-dominated body voted 25-9 to pass HB 269, a bill that prohibits the death penalty for defendants diagnosed with any of four specified mental health disorders. The measure overwhelmingly passed the House on February 9 by a vote of 76-19. If signed by Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, Kentucky would join Ohio in exempting severely mentally ill defendants from capital punishment.

Under the bill’s provisions, defendants who had active symptoms and a documented diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and/or delusional disorder at the time of the offense would no longer be subject to the death penalty. Defendants seeking to bar capital prosecution under the bill are required to file a motion in the trial court at least 120 days before their scheduled trial date. If the court determines that the defendant meets the statute’s requirements, the case will proceed to a non-capital trial. Unlike a similar measure passed in Ohio in 2021, Kentucky’s law would not apply to those already sentenced to death in the state.

Bipartisan support was crucial to passing the law in Kentucky’s Republican-controlled legislature. The 21 co-sponsors of the bill included both Democrats and Republicans. Conservative legislators cited their pro-life views in support of the bill. “You can’t say we’re pro-life and then say ‘except.’ There’s no exception, all life has to be precious,” Sen. Stephen Meredith (R-Leitchfield) said. Sen. Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville) noted that mentally ill defendants would still face consequences for their crimes. “It in no way absolves defendants of legal responsibilities for their crimes, they can still be tried, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms including life without parole,” she said.

Critics of the bill argued that it was unnecessary because juries are already permitted to weigh evidence of mental illness in their sentencing deliberations. Republican Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a death penalty proponent, opposed the measure as a “slippery slope for getting rid of the death penalty.”

A previous bill to prohibit the execution of prisoners with serious mental illness passed the state House in 2021 but never received a vote in the Senate. Rep. Chad McCoy, the bill’s lead sponsor and Republican House majority whip, reintroduced the bill this year but limited the illnesses that would exempt a defendant from the death penalty and added the requirement that the defendant must have been professionally diagnosed with one of the specified conditions. The revisions, he said, were necessary to garner support from key senators. “Here’s the change they needed, and here’s what is does: You now have to have a documented history and diagnosis from a mental health professional, and we define that expressly in the bill,” McCoy said.

Similar bills have been considered by other state legislatures in recent years. In 2021, Ohio banned the death penalty for defendants who were severely mentally ill at the time of the offense. This legislative session, Republican lawmakers in Florida, South Dakota, and Tennessee introduced bills banning the execution of people with severe mental illness. The Florida bills died in committee. The South Dakota bill passed the Senate by a 21-14 vote but failed in the House by a vote of 25-43. The Tennessee bills have not advanced as of March 28.

Since 2017, similar bills have also been introduced in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia. The bills in Colorado and Virginia became moot when legislatures in those states abolished the death penalty.