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Retired Lt. General: Exclude Mentally Ill Vets from the Death Penalty

Saying that the death penalty should “be reserved for the ‘worst of the worst in our society,’” retired Marine Corps Lieutenant General John Castellaw (pictured) has urged the Tennessee state legislature to adopt pending legislation that would bar the death penalty for people with severe mental illnesses. In an op-ed in the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, General Castellaw writes that the death penalty “should not be prescribed for those with severe mental illnesses, including those people with illnesses connected to their military service.” A 2015 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, estimated that approximately 300 veterans are on death row across the United States, many suffering from mental illness caused or exacerbated by their military service. “[A]s many as 30 percent of the veterans from Vietnam through today’s conflicts suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” General Castellaw writes, some of whom have not “receive[d] the care they needed and the care our country promised.” The General tells the story of Andrew Brannan, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who was diagnosed with service-related PTSD and bipolar disorder. Brannan was convicted and sentenced to death in Georgia for killing a deputy sheriff during a traffic stop in which he had behaved erratically and had begged the officer to shoot him. Despte no prior criminal record and having a 100 percent disability rating from the Veterans Administration, Georgia executed Brannan. His final words were, “I am proud to have been able to walk point for my comrades, and pray that the same thing does not happen to any of them.” In arguing for a mental-illness exemption from the death penalty, General Castellaw writes, “[a]s Americans, we can do better at recognizing the invisible wounds that some of our veterans still carry while ensuring they get the treatment that they deserve and that we owe them for their sacrifice. As Tennesseans, we can do better by staying tough on crime but becoming smarter on sentencing those whose actions are impacted by severe mental illness.” The Tennessee legislature is expected to consider Senate Bill 378 and House Bill 345 later this year. A similar bill under consideration in Ohio has recently received the support of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board. In a January 3 editorial, the newspaper called Ohio Senate Bill 40 “common-sense, bipartisan—and humane.” Under both the Tennessee and Ohio proposals, people who commit murder but are found to have one of five severe mental illnesses would face a maximum sentence of life without parole.


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Virginia Governor Commutes Death Sentence of Mentally Incompetent Death-Row Prisoner

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe commuted the sentence of mentally incompetent death-row prisoner William Joseph Burns (pictured) on December 29, 2017, after multiple mental-health experts said Burns was unlikely to regain sufficient competency for his death sentence to ever be carried out. Burns, whose sentence was converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole, became the fifth death-row prisoner to have been granted clemency in the United States in 2017. Burns was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 rape and murder of his mother-in-law. Showing signs of severe mental illness, Burns was found incompetent to stand trial in 1999, delaying his trial for a year. At trial, his lawyers presented mitigating evidence that Burns had mental retardation (now known as intellectual disability), but the jury returned a death verdict. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence in 2001, but in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the use of the death penalty against people with mental retardation violated the Eighth Amendment. In 2005, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Burns had presented sufficient evidence of intellectual disability to warrant a trial on that issue. However, Burns exhibited continuing signs of severe mental illness and a court-appointed mental-health expert determined that he was actively psychotic, spawning more than a decade of litigation over his competency to stand trial. In issuing the commutation, McAuliffe wrote that the “continued pursuit of the execution of Mr. Burns, both as a matter of constitutional principle and legal practicality, cannot be justified.” McAuliffe noted that Virginia has already spent more than $350,000 in "treating, transferring, monitoring, and litigating whether Mr. Burns has the mental competence to conduct a trial on whether he has the intellectual capacity to be executed" and mental-health experts "have confirmed that Mr. Burns is not likely to be restored to competence. ... As of now," the Governor said, "there is no lawful way to impose the death sentence on Mr. Burns, and there is no clear path for that ever being possible." The commutation, McAuliffe said, "brings finality to these legal proceedings; it assures the victim’s family that Mr. Burns will never again enjoy freedom, but without the torment of post-trial litigation; and it allows the Commonwealth to devote its resources towards other cases. In my view, this is the only just and reasonable course." Virginia governors have commuted ten death sentences since the Commonwealth reinstated its death penalty in October 1975. In 2000, following DNA testing that proved his innocence, Governor Jim Gillmore granted an absolute pardon to Earl Washington. Most recently, Governor McAuliffe commuted the death sentence of Ivan Teleguz five days before his scheduled April 25, 2017 execution, noting that the prosecution's use of false evidence to influence the jury's sentencing determination resulted in a death verdict that “was terribly flawed and unfair.”


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