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Mental Illness and the Death Penalty Debated in NC

May 3, 2010

RALEIGH, N.C. - The brother of "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski is touring North Carolina starting today to talk about mental illness and the death penalty. It's an issue being examined by the state General Assembly, with a bill on the table that would exempt people with severe mental illness at the time of a crime from the death penalty.

When David Kaczynski turned his brother in, he was told Ted would receive treatment. Instead, the Justice Department pursued the death penalty, and Ted ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

"The reason my brother didn't get the death penalty wasn't because he was mentally ill. We do execute quite a few mentally-ill people in this country. It wasn't because there was any mercy for our having turned Ted in. His life was saved because he had great attorneys."

Bill Babbitt is also speaking as part of the My Brother's Keeper tour of North Carolina. He turned in his brother, Manny Babbitt, after he says authorities promised Manny would receive treatment for paranoid schizophrenia. Manny was sentenced to death and executed.

Kris Parks is a volunteer attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina, and a supporter of the legislation. She explains that the definition of a severe mental illness is a high standard to meet, and the bill would require such information to be disclosed before a trial begins. Right now, that mental illness issue isn't considered until a trial is underway, or after a verdict.

"It forces both the state and the defense to hand over their information early. You know, if the defendant is going to allege he was mentally ill at the time of the crime, he's got to tell the state; the state gets to interview that defendant."

Opponents of changing the law say it doesn't take into consideration the views of murder victims' families, some of whom say they see the death penalty as justice served.

The My Brother's Keepertour is in Raleigh at 7 p.m., First Baptist Church Family Life Center,
101 South Wilmington Street. The tour also stops later in Goldsboro, Kinston, Greenville, Jacksonville, Wilmington, Wilson and Rocky Mount.

Deb Courson, Public News Service - NC