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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014

Definition of mental illness goes on trial

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

"A narrow definition of "mentally ill" could open the door for literally thousands of appeals."

Once again, the United States Supreme Court will address the issue of capital punishment. But this time it gets really sticky. The question will revolve around the issue of "mentally ill" - how are prisoners defined as mentally ill in terms of facing execution. It will not be an easy task.

There's generally agreement, though not universal, that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a mentally ill person. But as capital punishment proponents argue, virtually anyone on death row can get someone to testify they are mentally ill. So just where do you draw the line?

I worry that those murderers who possess a low IQ will somehow see this court case as grounds for an appeal of their death sentence. And I argue that there are millions of people with low intelligence who still have the understanding that their crime was wrong. But a narrow definition of "mentally ill" could open the door for literally thousands of appeals.

Some even argue that anyone who commits a capital murder offense is "mentally ill." The argument is that it takes someone who does not have full control of their thinking to commit a murder. But that would render just about every capital murder case as being outside of the scope of the death sentence.

Officials will tell you that a loose definition of "mentally ill" may include as high as 20 percent of the population. But just because someone has these learning deficiencies does not give them license to commit murder.

The court is truly in an awkward position. The court is just about evenly divided on the issue of executing minors who commit murder. But them comes John Malvo in the sniper case. That deals a deadly blow to the opponents of capital murder for minors. The issue of executing the mentally ill will be just as divisive and just as difficult.

We must be cautious in our definition from the high court. Granted, there are defendants who clearly lack the intellectual skills to understand wrongdoing. But just because someone is "slow" or has a lower intellect does not automatically exclude them from execution. That, at least, is how I hope the high court rules.



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