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Pitch in works for death-penalty ban for mentally ill

by John Moritz | November 27, 2018 at 2:47 a.m.

A lawmaker from Pine Bluff said Monday that she plans to once again introduce a bill next year to end the use of the death penalty on criminals diagnosed with the most severe mental illnesses, after similar legislation failed to gain traction in 2017.

The legislation by Rep. Vivian Flowers, a Democrat, filed as House Bill 2170 of 2017, defined "serious mental illness" as a disorder with symptoms that include delusional or extremely disorganized thinking, hallucinations and other mania. Examples of such disorders include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

HB2170, as well as another Democrat-sponsored bill to raise the bar on the required burden of proof in death penalty cases, was among several anti-death-penalty proposals that failed to make it out of committee hearings in the waning days of the 2017 regular session.

Flowers instead offered up HB2170 for study ahead of the 2019 regular session, and on Monday presented expert testimony in support of her bill to the House Judiciary Committee.

"I clearly understand the public sentiment regarding the abolishment of the death penalty," said Flowers, a reference to public polling showing that Arkansans favor the death penalty. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arkansas and 30 other states have capital punishment.

However, Flowers said she believed lawmakers and the public could be open to narrowing the use of the death penalty.

The state put four men to death last year, resuming lethal injection executions after a 10-year hiatus. The state had planned nine total executions. Three were halted by courts over concerns about the prisoners' mental competency.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled to prohibit the use of the death penalty on those who are insane or are unable to understand the reason for their punishment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. However, the court has not established blanket protections for those diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Dr. Hugo Morais, a forensic psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told the committee Monday that Flowers' bill covers a "unique" set of symptoms and disorders.

"They affect a small percentage of the population," he said, and would not apply to most criminal defendants.

Still, some members of the committee expressed skepticism over Flowers' bill.

"To me, anybody that commits murder, they're mentally ill. There's something wrong with them," said state Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs.

The committee meeting took no formal action on Flowers' bill. After the meeting, Rushing told a reporter she would oppose the legislation if it came up during the regular session. The session starts Jan. 14.

Metro on 11/27/2018

Print Headline: Pitch in works for death-penalty ban for mentally ill

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