NEW VOICES: Ohio Supreme Court Justice Says Mentally Ill Should be Exempt from Death Penalty
Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton of the Ohio Supreme Court called upon the legislature to exempt defendants with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Judge Stratton concurred in the affirmance of the death sentence for Donald Ketterer. She noted that she was not questioning Ketterer's guilt, nor whether he was competent to stand trial, nor even his possible mental retardation, all of which are covered by other aspects of the law. Rather the judge said she was constrained by existing law to uphold the death sentence, even though she believed the defendant's mental illness should merit an exemption from the death penalty:
Ketterer is a person with a serious mental illness. His family also has had a long history of mental illness and suicide attempts. Ketterer himself was hospitalized repeatedly and attempted suicide several times. His mental illness was fueled by drug and alcohol abuse. Two psychologists testified that Ketterer had a serious mental illness, known as bipolar disorder, which makes it difficult for him to control impulses normally. Not even the state disputed that he was seriously mentally ill. But the state argued that Ketterer could have controlled his behavior.
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Deterrence is of little value as a rationale for executing offenders with severe mental illness when they have diminished impulse control and planning abilities. As for retribution, capital punishment still enjoys wide public support among Americans, but a Gallup Poll conducted in October 2003 found that while almost two thirds of Americans surveyed support the death penalty, 75 percent of those surveyed in 2002 opposed executing the mentally ill. Society's discomfort with executing the severely mentally ill among us is further evidenced by the American Bar Association's formation of a task force in 2003 to consider mental disability and the death penalty. After studying the issue, the task force made recommendations that were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates in August 2006.
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I urge our General Assembly to consider legislation setting the criteria for determining when a person with a severe mental illness should be excluded from the penalty of death. Unlike mental retardation, which can be determined by a number on an IQ test and other basic criteria, mental illnesses vary widely in severity. The General Assembly would be the proper body to examine these variations, take public testimony, hear from experts in the field, and fashion criteria for the judicial system to apply.
(State v. Ketterer, 111 Ohio St.3d 70 (2006), Stratton, J., concurring) (internal citations omitted). See Mental Illness (including access to the ABA's resolution referenced above. The American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association have also endorsed the resolution in favor of exempting the seriously mentally ill from the death penalty. See also New Voices.