Death Penalty May Be out for Mentally Disabled - Sparrow Law Firm

We’re continuing our discussion of a bill in the North Carolina State Senate right now. The measure, House Bill 659, would remove the death penalty as a sentencing option if the defendant can demonstrate that he or she had a severe mental disability at the time of the offense. In this state, the death penalty is only an option in first-degree murder cases.

The defendant must claim a mental disability in a pretrial hearing. If the court finds against the defendant, the defendant may present evidence of his mental disability to the jury at the sentencing hearing.

As we said in our last post, the burden of proof for the pretrial hearing is clear and convincing evidence. At the sentencing hearing, the burden is lower: The jury must be swayed by a preponderance of the evidence. The burdens of production and persuasion remain with the defendant.

Defendants who are successful in their mental disability hearings may not use an “innocent by reason of insanity” defense strategy, and they are subject to any other penalty authorized for first-degree murder.

The bill defines severe mental disability as a mental disability or defect that “significantly impairs” the person’s capacity to:

  1. appreciate the nature, consequences, or wrongfulness of the person’s conduct
  2. exercise rational judgment in relation to conduct, or
  3. conform the person’s conduct to the requirement of the law.

(HB 659, Section 1)

The bill specifically excludes defendants whose mental disability is “manifested primarily by repeated criminal conduct” or that is caused by the “acute effects of alcohol or other drugs.” In other words, a pattern of criminal behavior does not, in itself, constitute a mental disability; nor does a crime committed by, for example, an angry drunk.

We will wrap up our summary of the bill in our next post — and we’ll finally discuss the provisions that were excised.

Source: North Carolina General Assembly, House Bill 659, engrossed 06/03/2011