How Mental Illness Law Is Changing Ohio’s Death Row

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COLUMBUS – A new Ohio law prohibiting the execution of people with severe mental illness at the time of their crime has begun to see its first implementation.

Republican Governor Mike DeWine signed the bill in January covering killers diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder or delusional disorder when they committed their offenses.

Earlier this year, judges removed death row inmates from Butler and Franklin counties after their lawyers successfully argued that they met statutory criteria for mental illness.

And earlier this month, the law was invoked in a state Supreme Court ruling upholding the death sentence of a man who killed four of his family in 2017, including an 8-year-old boy. .

What are the origins of the law?

The question of whether the mentally ill should be eligible for the death penalty has long been debated. Ohio law already required a determination of whether a death sentence was appropriate if an offender, “due to illness or mental defect, lacked the substantial capacity to assess the criminality of driving. of the offender ”at the time of the crime. This requirement was not the precursor to an automatic execution ban.

State law also allows a plea of ​​not guilty by reason of insanity, although this is rarely invoked and difficult to prove.

Then, in 2014, an Ohio Supreme Court task force on the death penalty released a report with 56 recommendations to change the death penalty in Ohio. Recommendation 8 provided for a ban on executions if the offenders suffered from specific mental illnesses at the time they committed their crimes.

The new standard was supported by former GOP State Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, a long-time advocate for considering mental illness in the criminal justice system.

“The ‘evolving standards of decency’ that prohibit the execution of minors and people with intellectual disabilities should prohibit the execution of people with serious mental illnesses,” Lundberg Stratton told the Legislature in May 2019.

How has the law been used so far?

In June, a Franklin County judge overturned the death sentence against David Braden, on death row for the 1999 Columbus murders of his girlfriend, Denise Roberts, 44, and his father, Ralph Heimlich, 83 years. Braden’s attorneys have successfully argued that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia with delirium.

The Death Penalty Information Center, a national capital punishment clearinghouse that opposes the death penalty, said Braden was the first nationwide inmate removed from death row by such a law. Ohio is the only state where the death penalty is active with this law.

Tennessee considered but did not pass such legislation in 2020. Connecticut had a similar law on its books before it abolished the death penalty in 2015. The Virginia Senate considered a similar measure before the state also abolish his death penalty this year.

In a second Ohio case last month, a Butler County judge overturned the death sentence of Donald Ketterer, on death row for the 2003 murder of Lawrence Sanders, 85, his former boss. The judge said the evidence showed Ketterer suffered from bipolar disorder on the day of the murder.

Then, on October 7, the state Supreme Court ruled 5-2 to uphold Arron Lawson’s death sentence for quadruple murder in 2017. Justice Sharon Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that his brutal murder of four people, including an 8-year-old child, justified the death sentence and outweighed the evidence presented on his behalf, including a variety of mental health diagnoses. A three-judge panel sentenced Lawson to death in 2019.

At various times, Lawson, 27, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and PTSD, and did not receive adequate treatment for these conditions, records show. As a result, Justice Michael Donnelly “reluctantly agreed” to upholding Lawson’s death sentence. But he noted that Lawson has the option of appealing under the new mental illness law.

Lawson’s attorney was left with a message for comment.

Will others on death row invoke the new law?

The law that came into effect in April provides for a one-year deadline for current death row inmates to seek revocation of their death sentences due to the severe mental illness clause. Prisoners who successfully appeal their sentences are taken off death row but still face life imprisonment without parole.

Opponents of the law, including the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, argued that every death row inmate would appeal, further clogging the courts.

“It also creates more uncertainty for the families of the victims of Ohio’s most heinous crimes and gives the offender another opportunity to hurt the families of the victims,” ​​said Vic Vigluicci, Portage County District Attorney. , in October 2019.

But Tim Young, the state’s public defender, said mass deposits were unlikely. He noted in a September 2019 testimony that only 9% of Ohio death row inmates filed a lawsuit when the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of people with intellectual disabilities was unconstitutional, and only 4% – eight people – were successful.

Meanwhile, the future of executions in Ohio is uncertain. DeWine said last year that because of Ohio’s difficulty finding drugs for executions, lethal injection is no longer an option and lawmakers must choose another method of capital punishment before detainees cannot be put to death.

The bipartisan House and Senate bills would eliminate the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole.

The state’s last execution dates back to July 18, 2018, when Ohio put Robert Van Hook to death for killing David Self in Cincinnati in 1985.

Tim Young, the public defender for the state of Ohio, testified in September at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus in favor of a bill that would abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Young also pushed for a measure that became law earlier this year, which prohibits inmates from being executed if they suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of their crime, including schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.


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