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Death Penalty and Severe Mental Illness

Policy Analyst

On Tuesday, Representative Toni Rose filed HB 3080, a bill that bars the death penalty for people who have a severe mental illness (SMI) at the time they committed a capital crime. Currently, the law forbids the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities and juveniles. This bill would extend that exemption to those with an SMI. Mental health and capital punishment are core issues for people of all faiths, and this bill falls at the intersection of justice and mercy.

People who have a severe mental illness, including severe depressive disorders, schizophrenic disorders, bipolar disorders, as well as a few other severe mental illnesses as laid out in the insurance code, are eligible for the death penalty. This bill would exempt those who have been diagnosed with an SMI or showed symptoms of an SMI before they committed the crime from the death penalty. Defendants who qualify for the exemption are still subject to criminal prosecution, and would serve terms of life without parole if convicted.

The exemption is of particular concern for Texas that has far and away the highest number of executions among the 50 states. Between 1976 and 2017, Texas executed 540 people, almost five times as many as Oklahoma, the state with the second highest number of executions. Because of their impaired ability to participate in their defense, as well as their diminished perception of reality, persons diagnosed with an SMI are more susceptible to being wrongfully accused and convicted of a crime.

Texas Impact is part of the Texas Alliance for a Severe Mental Illness Exemption, a coalition comprising the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, National Alliance on Mental Illness – Texas, Mental Health America of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, and Texas Defender Service.