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Death Penalty Opponents Converge on Kentucky

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January 14, 2010

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Death penalty opponents from around the country are holding their annual conference in Louisville starting today, and one issue likely to come up for discussion is at the center of a bill now before the Kentucky House.

Susannah Sheffer, program staffer with the group Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, says people with mental illness should be excluded from receiving the death penalty.

"Someone who is suffering from mental retardation, for example, is not fully aware of the consequence of their actions, and the same is true of people suffering really debilitating symptoms of severe mental illness."

House Bill 16 would apply only to a narrow pool of defendants, and would ensure that those convicted still are severely punished, not merely institutionalized. Opponents say the measure would offer defense attorneys too many opportunities to use mental illness as an argument. If passed, the Kentucky legislation would be the most comprehensive in the country at protecting those who are mentally ill from execution.

Sheffer says her group has members whose relatives have been killed by mentally ill defendants. They see capital punishment as another life unnecessarily lost.

"They actually don't want the death penalty; that's not the way for them to achieve justice or closure or any of those kinds of things that people imagine victims want."

Sheffer says her group has a focus on prevention, above and beyond punishment.

"We're interested in how our loved one came to be taken from us. You know, what went wrong? How was this severe mental illness allowed to go so untreated that it resulted in a violent act?"

More information on the conference is available at ncadp.org.

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - KY