End this in­hu­mane pun­ish­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY BOB TAFT AND JOSEPH E. KERNAN Bob Taft, a Repub­li­can, was gov­er­nor of Ohio from 1999 to 2007. Joseph E. Kernan, a Demo­crat, was gov­er­nor of In­di­ana from 2003 to 2005.

Leg­is­la­tors in six states — In­di­ana, Ohio, South Dakota, Ten­nessee, Texas and Vir­ginia — have pro­posed leg­is­la­tion to pro­hibit the death penalty for in­di­vid­u­als with se­vere men­tal ill­ness. As for­mer gov­er­nors of states that are grap­pling with this is­sue, we strongly sup­port this ef­fort to end an in­hu­mane prac­tice that fails to re­spect com­mon stan­dards of de­cency and com­port with rec­om­men­da­tions of men­tal-health ex­perts.

The over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of peo­ple with se­vere men­tal ill­ness are not vi­o­lent; in fact, they are more likely to be vic­tims than per­pe­tra­tors of vi­o­lent crime. For the very small num­ber who do com­mit a cap­i­tal crime while suf­fer­ing from a se­vere men­tal dis­or­der, cur­rent death-penalty law does not ad­e­quately take the ef­fects of their ill­ness into ac­count.

As a re­sult, de­fen­dants with se­vere men­tal ill­ness — such as schizophre­nia, bipo­lar dis­or­der, post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and trau­matic brain in­jury — con­tinue to be sen­tenced to death and ex­e­cuted. Last March, Texas ex­e­cuted Adam Ward, a man rec­og­nized as “di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der and placed on lithium as early as age four,” ac­cord­ing to ap­pel­late court doc­u­ments. And in 2015, Ge­or­gia ex­e­cuted Andrew Bran­nan, a dec­o­rated Viet­nam War vet­eran who also had a pro­nounced men­tal ill­ness. He qual­i­fied for 100 per­cent dis­abil­ity from the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs be­cause of his PTSD and bipo­lar dis­or­der.

Although their grave ill­nesses do not ex­cuse th­ese de­fen­dants’ crimes, we be­lieve that life im­pris­on­ment with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role would have been a more ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment. Ill­nesses such as schizophre­nia and bipo­lar dis­or­der are char­ac­ter­ized by im­pair­ments that — when un­treated — sig­nif­i­cantly af­fect one’s abil­ity to dis­tin­guish fact from real­ity, to make ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions or to re­act ap­pro­pri­ately to events and other peo­ple. Un­der th­ese con­di­tions, the de­gree of cul­pa­bil­ity may not rise to the level of cold, unim­paired cal­cu­lus that jus­ti­fies the ul­ti­mate penalty.

In ad­di­tion, peo­ple with se­vere men­tal ill­ness are more vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing wrong­fully ac­cused and con­victed. Re­search has shown that such peo­ple are over­rep­re­sented among cases of false con­fes­sion be­cause the con­di­tions of their ill­ness — such as prone­ness to con­fu­sion and a lack of as­sertive­ness — may ren­der them more vul­ner­a­ble to in­ter­ro­ga­tion tech­niques and im­pair their abil­ity to in­voke their con­sti­tu­tional rights.

Stud­ies have also shown that death­penalty ju­rors of­ten mis­un­der­stand men­tal ill­ness, which is of­ten viewed as an ag­gra­vat­ing fac­tor — that is, a rea­son to sen­tence some­one to death — rather than as a mit­i­gat­ing fac­tor, which is what it should be. The trou­bling con­se­quence is that some de­fen­dants may end up on death row be­cause of their men­tal ill­ness.

The fact that the death penalty ap­plies to those with men­tal ill­ness also means that vet­er­ans with demon­strated PTSD may be ex­e­cuted. Even though most of the thou­sands of vet­er­ans strug­gling with PTSD do not com­mit the se­ri­ous crimes that may be el­i­gi­ble for the death penalty, an es­ti­mated 10 per­cent of the United States’ death-row in­mates are vet­er­ans — some of whom suf­fered from ac­tive and se­vere symp­toms of PTSD at the time of their crime. Th­ese vet­er­ans have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma that few oth­ers have faced and have made a vi­tal con­tri­bu­tion to the safety of our coun­try that de­serves our recog­ni­tion.

Leg­is­la­tion be­ing con­sid­ered on this topic varies by state, but each bill cre­ates a case-by-case de­ci­sion­mak­ing process — con­ducted by ei­ther a judge or jury — to de­ter­mine if a de­fen­dant has a se­vere men­tal ill­ness. Only those with the most se­ri­ous di­ag­noses would qual­ify. The leg­is­la­tion has been en­dorsed by ma­jor state and na­tional men­tal-health or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion and the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion, as well as by faith groups, elected of­fi­cials and for­mer pub­lic safety of­fi­cials.

The death penalty was not in­tended for peo­ple in the throes of se­vere delu­sions, liv­ing with schizophre­nia or suf­fer­ing from com­bat-re­lated PTSD. Th­ese are not the blame­wor­thy in­di­vid­u­als whose ex­e­cu­tions can be jus­ti­fied.

We come from dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal par­ties, but we join the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans — sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of the death penalty alike — who be­lieve it should not be im­posed on de­fen­dants with such se­ri­ous im­pair­ments. This is a fair, ef­fi­cient and bi­par­ti­san re­form that would put an end to a prac­tice that is not con­sis­tent with cur­rent knowl­edge about men­tal ill­ness and fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of hu­man de­cency.

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