UPDATE: This legislation was deferred to Summer Study on March 28, 2017.
Richard Taylor is schizophrenic, delusional and psychotic. He is so severely mentally ill that he opted to represent himself at his capital trial, wearing his prison uniform and sunglasses and making bizarre and delusional statements throughout. He presented no defense. Tennessee jurors never heard compelling evidence about his difficult childhood, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospitalizations or severe mental illness. They deliberated for less than an hour before sentencing him to death.
Increasingly, Tennesseans have joined with mental health advocates in recognizing that people with severe mental illness should be held responsible for their crimes, but not sentenced to death.
SB 378/HB 345, sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs and Rep. Andrew Farmer, would prohibit the imposition of a sentence of death upon a defendant who suffered from a severe mental illness at the time of committing the offense of murder in the first degree when the conditions of the severe mental illness significantly impaired the defendant’s capacity to appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of his or her conduct related to the offense or significantly impaired the defendant’s capacity to exercise rational judgment in relation to the conduct of the offense.
Taylor’s case illustrates numerous problems with allowing the death penalty to apply to severely mentally ill people. Often such people have difficulty understanding the charges they face. They are more vulnerable to police pressure and more likely to give false confessions. Many also fire their lawyers and represent themselves, or waive appeals.
In Taylor’s case, an appeals court ultimately reversed his conviction due to numerous significant errors during trial. He is currently serving a life sentence. However, the decision to seek the death penalty in his case meant he – and the family of his victim – were dragged through two trials and 27 years of litigation before his sentence was ultimately reduced to life. Taxpayer resources would be better spent on things like preventive mental health programs than expensive and time-consuming litigation.
Join with us and the Tennessee Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion to voice your concerns about sentencing people with severe mental illness to death.