New bill could change eligibility for death penalty

4 months 1 week 17 hours ago Wednesday, April 11 2018 Apr 11, 2018 Wednesday, April 11, 2018 3:38:00 PM CDT April 11, 2018 in News
By: Tyler Emery and Connor Snelson, KOMU 8 Reporters
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JEFFERSON CITY - A new bill introduced Wednesday in the Missouri Senate could change who is eligible to receive the death penalty.

Senate Bill 1081 would provide "a procedure by which a defendant may be found to be not eligible for the death penalty due to serious mental illness.”

The procedure would take place pretrial. If the defendant was found to be severely mentally ill and that illness was linked to their crime, the death penalty would be removed as a form of punishment. 

Some of the conditions include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD.

Every person that testified during the committee's hearing was in favor of passing the bill.

Michael Wolff, a retired judge of the Missouri Supreme Court, says people who are vulnerable should be excluded from the death penalty.

"Being seriously mentally ill is something that you didn't have anything to do with. Yes we hold you responsible for your conduct, but not the maximum extent of being subject to execution," says Wolff.

Several witnesses cited the execution of Cecil Clayton as an example of the how death penalty law failed to include persons with severe mental illnesses.

Clayton suffered a severe brain injury in 1972 after a sawmill accident which forced doctors to remove 20 percent of his frontal lobe.

He was convicted of murdering a sheriff's deputy in 1996, and executed in 2015.

Seven states proposed similar bills in 2017 which would prohibit the death penalty for people who suffered from a serious mental illness at the time of their crime. 

Part of the recent push for these kind of bills has to do with the stigma behind mental health.

Christina Cowart, project chair of the Missouri Alliance for Serious Mental Illness Exclusion, says her goal is to protect the mentally ill from a negative stigma. 

"We see that jurors use mental health as an aggravating factor. So in some cases they might get the death sentence because of their mental illness, which is unacceptable. So this particular bill would protect those people from even the possibility of getting a death sentence."

Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, introduced the bill. If passed, it goes into effect on August 28.

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