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Bill would remove death penalty option for mentally ill


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — One Republican lawmaker wants to take the death penalty off the table for those suffering from a mental illness at the time of the crime.

Some members of the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee were surprised to find the caveat wasn’t already part of Missouri’s law, while others took issue with the specific provisions in HB 353.

The bill under consideration was put forth by Rep. Tom Hannegan. The legislation would remove the ability to sentence to death an individual who is found to have suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of the offense.

To the sophomore lawmaker, the effects a mental illness has on a person is something with which he is intimately familiar. His sister suffers from schizophrenia — Hannegan noted she has not committed a crime — and has watched what she, and his family, have gone through.

With that experience in mind, he has moved to protect individuals suffering from mental illnesses.

Under current law, a jury can find a person who suffered from a mental illness — and it affected their behavior at the time of the crime — could still receive the death penalty. Hannegan’s legislation would change that.

No one chooses to have a mental illness. This is a health condition that is involuntary in nature,” said Marion Boyd, project director for the Missouri Alliance for Serious Mental Illness Exclusion. “Sometimes when mental illness goes untreated, tragic things happen.”

Supporters argued the death penalty was not an adequate or just punishment for an individual suffering from a mental illness.

But not everyone was on board with the legislation.

“I like criminal justice reform, but I can’t support something like this,” said Rep. Justin Hill.

Opponents argued there is already a robust system in place to deal with cases of mental illness. One witness said the way the bill is written, “It becomes a rich person’s defense.”

The bill needs the committee’s approval before advancing.