Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Guestpost: "Let's Not Execute The Mentally Ill" 12/11/17 DNR Column By Russ Leinbach

Twenty-three inmates were executed in the US in 2017.
“Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die” (Proverbs 24:11-12).

Although our criminal justice system is supposed to protect the rights of the vulnerable, serious injustices exist and we are often ignorant of them. The execution of people with severe mental illness is one of these injustices that needs to be brought to light. We need to extend mercy to people with severe mental illness. Join me in urging our lawmakers to prohibit the use of the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

Thankfully, our nation has come to rule out some of the barbaric uses of capital punishment; abolishing its use against people with intellectual disability and against children. Despite this, Virginia is executing persons with severe mental illnesses. William Morva, diagnosed with delusional disorder, was executed in July. Morva committed his crimes in the grips of paranoid delusions, including the belief that President George W. Bush was conspiring with local law enforcement to have him killed. Despite this, jurors at his trial were only told that Morva had “odd beliefs” about the world.

Severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and the disorder that afflicted Morva, are often characterized by hallucinations and delusions that prevent people from distinguishing what is real and what isn’t. These characteristics make the severely mentlally ill often unable to control or understand the consequences of their behavior. These symptoms are the result of a diagnosable medical condition, not personal choice.

As a result, defendants with severe mental illness are certainly more susceptible to exploitation in our justice system, including a higher risk of erroneous convictions. First, they are more likely to give false confessions than those who don’t have a mental illness. Defendants in criminal proceedings are often put under great psychological pressure, especially when police interrogations aim to elicit a confession. When one’s thoughts and emotions are already severely impaired due to symptoms of mental illness, that pressure can lead defendants to confess to crimes they haven’t committed.

While Morva needed to be held accountable for his serious crimes, our legal system did not provide him the compassion and fair treatment he deserved. Legislation would change that. The proposed exemption would not morally or legally excuse anyone, as it applies only to the sentencing phase of capital cases. Defendants eligible for this exemption could still be found guilty and given harsh punishment, including life without the possibility of parole.

With Proverbs in mind, I call on lawmakers in Virginia to pass a severe mental illness exemption to the death penalty. Mercy and Justice demands that our legislators act now to rescue those who are unfairly sentenced to die.

Russ Leinbach lives in Harrisonburg.

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