Kentucky bill would ban execution for severely mentally ill

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FRANKFORT, Ky. — Efforts to ban applying Kentucky's death penalty to some people with severe mental illnesses ran into resistance Thursday, but the bill mustered just enough votes to be sent to the full state Senate.

The measure was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 6-4 vote, leaving it potentially one step away from being sent to the governor. But that final hurdle could be a formidable one in the Senate after the bill won 75-16 House passage this week. Republicans control both chambers.

Afterward, the committee’s chairman, Republican Sen. Whitney Westerfield, said the bill’s prospects in the Senate appeared to be “dimmer.” Westerfield, who supports the bill, put its chances of passing the Senate at “50-50,” adding: “I’m not as confident as I once was.”

The measure would block use of the death penalty for people who, at the time of the offence , have a documented history of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder or delusional disorder.

“This is not, despite all the rhetoric we’ve been hearing, going to do away with the death penalty," said Republican Rep. Chad McCoy, the bill's lead sponsor. "It is a very, very narrow bill.”

The bill reflects a long-running goal of mental health advocates in Kentucky.

The measure drew opposition from prosecutors Thursday.

Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Cohron objected to the bill's reference to a person's documented history of disorders. He said it's too “loose a term” that would cause more legal disputes in cases that already can drag on for years.

The bill's critics worry that a decades-old diagnosis could prevent that person from being held accountable for a heinous crime later in life.

Disorders listed in the bill are seen frequently in criminal cases, and defence attorneys could try to have the proposal applied to existing death row cases if the measure became law, Cohron said.

“The odds of this not being challenged and litigated retroactively is zero,” he said.

McCoy insisted the bill applies only apply to future cases where the death penalty might be considered.

“I don’t think we could be more clear on the retroactivity,” McCoy told the committee.

Offenders with a history of such disorders would still face severe punishment if the bill became law, he said.

“This is not a decision of whether somebody’s not going to be tried or not going to be punished,” McCoy said. “They’re still going to get life in prison without parole.”

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The legislation is House Bill 148.

Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press