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Abolishing Death Penalty for the Mentally Ill

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

By Liz Calvo

Although it was once a usual form of punishment around the world, the death penalty has been banned in 23 states in the U.S.

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Despite growing European abolition, the 27 states in the United States still retain the death penalty.

The death penalty in the U.S. came over with European colonists to discourage people from committing crimes. Today, the primary method of execution is lethal injection, although some states still allow the gas chamber, electrocution, hanging, and firing squads.

“No studies have found that [capital punishment] actually deters crime. Second, it is far more costly than it would be to put an off ender in prison for life without parole," said Dr. Laura Finley, professor of sociology and criminology.


Since 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment is not a violation of the Eighth Amendment, but some applications are considered “cruel and unusual.”

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“It’s simply inhuman to execute these individuals, and the fact that the U.S. still does makes us an outlier in terms of human rights, especially when compared to other Western, developed countries,” said Finley.

Pertaining to this topic, in 2002, the Court ruled that execution of those who have a severe mental illness is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

According to Celeste Fitzgerald, the strategic consultant for the Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), stated that the courts have not created a categorical bar for the Severe Mental Illness (SMI) bill.

“This has created a problematic situation because mental illness can impact decision making and communication,” she said.

Thus, the SMI bill, introduced on March 3, 2021, sponsored by Pinellas County Republican Senator, Jeff Brandes, that would prohibit the death penalty for those deemed “seriously mentally ill” was introduced and passed unanimously through the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 30.

“The defendant must present clear signs of mental illness at the time of defense, and the bill allows retroactive application for defendants who have completed the state’s post-conviction proceeding,” Brandes said when presenting the bill.

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Fitzgerald, however, stated that “some defendants with SMI refuse to allow evidence of their illness to be presented.”

That means that serious mental illness can be misinterpreted by jurors, even viewing these people with SMI as "inherently dangerous." This is a fact that has been proven to be false.

Furthermore, Brandes’ bill is not the only attempt to narrow the use of the death penalty. In January, Sen. Gary Farmer and Rep. Joe Geller proposed legislation that would strike the death penalty completely from Florida’s penal code.

The two South Florida Democrats’ proposals would repeal all mentions of capital punishment from state law, such as SB 568, HB 6019. However, neither bill has received a committee hearing, and at this point in the Republican-controlled legislature, it will likely fail to be put on any agenda.

Brandes’ Senate bill now has two more committees to clear up before it can be heard before the full Senate.

Since the enactment of Florida’s current death penalty statute, our understanding of the full impact of serious mental illness has evolved. Today, with the benefit of science, we know that people with serious mental illness are both inherently less culpable for their actions and more vulnerable in the criminal justice system.

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Ohio recently enacted a law excluding people with serious mental illness from the death penalty. This law received broad public support and was approved based on the evolution of our understanding of severe mental illness.

Now, it is Florida's turn, says Fitzgerald.

“It would be a meaningful step away from our culture of excessive punishment. But the absence of one excessive punishment does not mean the presence of justice," she said. “It would save a vulnerable group of people from execution, and it would save families from experiencing trauma.”

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