Tennessee bill would exempt death penalty for people suffering from severe mental illness

Posted at 9:47 AM, Mar 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-07 19:49:29-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee lawmakers will once again debate over criminals being exempt from the death penalty because of a severe mental illness.

After his bill failed by one vote last general sessions, Sen. Richard Briggs, (R) Knoxville, co-sponsored by Rep. Bob Ramsey, (R) Maryville, introduced SB1124 this year and will be heard by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee next week.

The bill would exempt a criminal from being sentenced to death if that person had a previous medical diagnosis of a severe mental illness and is determined to be in a psychotic state at the time of the crime.

In order to meet the requirement, the person must be diagnosed with these mental disorders defined by the American Psychiatric Association: schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychosis, major depressive disorder with psychosis and delusional disorder.

Briggs said attorneys would have an expert testify. Prosecutors would still be able to seek the death penalty but the judge would determine in the pre-trial hearings if the case is appropriate for capital punishment.

If found guilty of first-degree murder, the defendant with severe mental illness would be eligible for the maximum punishment of life without possibility of parole.

If the defendant is someone who did not suffer a severe mental illness at the time of the crime, Briggs said the defense is still entitled to offer evidence of insanity.

“Is it ethical to put someone to death who doesn’t know what they do did if they killed someone?” Briggs questioned. “It’s no different than if you had a diabetic or someone who had a heart attack driving down the street and they pass out and go up on the sidewalk and hit and kill someone. A medical illness caused them to kill someone, would we put someone to death that had diabetes, or someone who had a heart attack if they killed someone? Why are we putting people to death that have a disease to the brain?”

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing someone with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional. Juveniles are also prohibited from being sentenced to death.

Briggs said his bill is a much-need extension to that ruling.

The bill differs from the insanity defense because it is broader in several ways including range of disorders and it applies when the person's capacity exercise rational judgment is seriously impaired, instead of just knowing between right and wrong.

However, Coffee County District Attorney General Craig Northcott argued the bill is more anti-death penalty. He is the representative for the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and disputes ideas that the death penalty is a bargaining tool for them.

"We're not looking to impose the death penalty when it's not appropriate," Northcott told NewsChannel 5. "We take this responsibility very seriously and any implication otherwise is frankly offensive to all of us."

Like many other district attorneys, Northcott does not agree with determining the capital case before the trial.

"It is dangerous to isolate that one factor, mental health of the defendant, away from everything else involved in the would upset the entirety of the way our justice system is established," Northcott added.

He also believes the bill would be unconstitutional.

"It removes the victim from the equation and violates the rights of that victim protected under the constitution to be heard as to what the appropriate sentence should be," Northcott said.

Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion Coordinator Sarah McGee said the proposed bill would help victim families get closure faster. She said it only affects a small percentage of cases, protect people with a severe mental illness who are more likely to falsely confess and save taxpayers money.

Last year, the American Bar Association explored the cost of inmates on death row in the report “Potential Cost-Savings of Severe Mental Illness Exclusion from the Death Penalty: An Analysis of Tennessee Data”.

The group chose Tennessee because it was currently the only state with both an ongoing legislative effort to create a severe mental illness exclusion and detailed data about its cases.

The report estimates that Tennessee could have saved up to $1.9 million in 2017 if it had a severe mental illness exclusion from the death penalty. The state would have saved between $57 and $78 million if it was implemented in 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated.

"You would use that money to prevent tragedies like this from happening in this first place, more mental health beds, and more resources for law enforcement to get folks diverted into treatment on the front end," McGee suggested.

ABA said 15 percent of the 67 Tennessee cases studied had a severe mental health diagnosis.

There is currently no database of everyone with severe mental illness whom prosecutors attempted to sentence to death in Tennessee.

Shelby County produced the most death sentences in the state. Out of the 192 individuals sentenced to death in Tennessee since 1977, 35 percent were sentenced in Shelby County.

The latest effort by the senator comes after three people were executed in Tennessee last year: David Earl Miller, Edmund Zagorski and Billy Ray Irick.

The executions were met with push-back from the inmates and their supporters who argued the electric chair and lethal injections, the two methods used in Tennessee, are unconstitutional.

In Dickson County, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Steven Wiggins, the man accused killing Sergeant Daniel Baker by shooting him multiple times execution-style.