Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

Should someone be subject to the death penalty if they were seriously mentally ill at the time of their crime?  The question was before the Virginia General Assembly again this year.  It is enormously complex, legally and morally.

The US Supreme Court has given us some guidance, but no clarity.  In Atkins v Virginia (536 U.S. 304), the Supreme Court ruled that the state can not execute a person with an intellectual disability, and in 2009 the Court directed that a state can not execute someone who is mentally ill at the time of the execution (Panetti v. Quarterman,127 S. Ct. 2842 (2007). 

The issue being considered by the legislature is different, however.  It sometimes happens that, with some mental health treatment in a prison, a person with a mental illness may recover enough that he is no longer mentally ill at the time of a scheduled execution.  In other words, the state might be able to treat someone enough to be able to execute him. The question becomes, should they?

The Virginia General Assembly had two bills before it this year to eliminate the death penalty for someone who is seriously mentally ill.  Delegate Leftwich brought HB 1522 and Senator Favola brought SB 1348.  Both bills were defeated in committee.  But advocates for people with mental illness vowed to fight on, in the hopes that one day Virginia will stop executing people who were mentally ill when they committed the crime.

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