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Hannegan introduces bill to exempt individuals with serious mental illness from the death penalty

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri House Rep. Tom Hannegan (R) introduced a bill Tuesday to exclude individuals with serious mental illness from the death penalty. Like Indiana Republican Gov. Joe Kernan, Rep. Hannegan believes current law must change.

“While only a small number of people with serious mental illness commit capital crimes, it is clear that the death penalty was not intended for people in the throes of severe delusions, living with schizophrenia or suffering from combat-related PTSD,” said Hannegan, who represents part of St. Charles County. “These are not blameworthy individuals.”

National trends mirror this view. Opposition to the execution of the mentally ill crosses party lines, with a 2015 poll finding that approximately 62% of Republicans, 72% of Democrats and 67% of Independents oppose the execution of individuals with serious mental illness.

House Bill 2509 proposes a change to the current law so that persons with documented evidence of a qualifying serious mental illness (SMI) existing at the time of their alleged offense may request a pre-trial hearing to exclude the possibility of a death sentence. Addressing serious mental illness issues pre-trial could result in cost savings to taxpayers. In neighboring Kansas, auditors found that a capital trial and associated appeals cost $1.2 million per case.

Current law fails to prevent the execution of those who possess serious mental illnesses or traumatic brain injuries. H.B. 2509 would cover those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychotic features, delusional disorders, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The Missouri Alliance for the Serious Mental Illness Exclusion (MASMIE) is a coalition of mental health advocates and other organizations that are educating Missourians about their concerns with sentencing to death those who have serious mental illness. Members include the Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare, Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri, the Treatment Advocacy Center and the Missouri Catholic Conference. MASMIE Project Chair, Christina Cowart believes this bill is an important step forward.

“Some people mistakenly believe that our legal system already protects defendants with SMI because there are processes for ‘competency’ or because a defendant could raise an insanity defense,” said Cowart. “However, those mechanisms are meant to determine whether a defendant is legally guilty or not. These mechanism are not limited, as this exemption would be, to the question of the penalty they should receive.”

Psych-RN Ed Bothe personally supports MASMIE’s goals. “I believe that those who commit violent crimes while in the grip of a psychotic delusion, hallucination or other disabling psychological condition lack judgment, understanding or self-control are less culpable,” said Bothe. “Until such time as the U.S. Supreme Court decides on this question, the responsibility for prohibiting the execution of such individuals in Missouri rests with the Missouri General Assembly.”