TN bill proposes: No death penalty for people suffering from mental illness

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- A Knoxville lawmaker sponsored a new bill that would exempt people suffering from severe mental illness from the death penalty.

CBS WTVF reported that Knoxville lawmaker Sen. Richard Briggs introduced SB1124 this year. It will be heard by the Criminal Justice Subcommittee next week.

According to WTVF, the bill would exempt a person 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.

The individual in question must be diagnosed with certain mental disorders defined by the American Psychiatric Association to be eligible: schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder with psychosis, major depressive disorder with psychosis and delusional disorder.

Briggs said attorneys would have an expert testify. A judge would determine in the pre-trial hearings if the case is appropriate for capital punishment.

If the person is found guilty of first-degree murder, the defendant with severe mental illness would be eligible for imprisonment 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 entitle 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?”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atikins vs. Virginia that executing someone with "mental retardation" is unconstitutional.

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

WTVF reported that this effort on Briggs' part comes after a similar bill failed in the last general sessions by one vote.

Three Tennesseans were executed last year: David Earl Miller, Edmund Zagorski and Billy Ray Irick.