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ACLU wants Idaho to restrict death penalty

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 18, 2017, 11:03 p.m.

A University of Idaho law professor and a group of advocates want to see Idaho pass rules that would prevent the mentally ill and juveniles from being subjected to the death penalty.

Shaakirrah Sanders, an associate professor at the UI College of Law Boise campus, discussed the issue in a presentation titled “Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in Idaho” during an event sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Moscow and the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho on Tuesday at the 1912 Center in Moscow.

Sanders said she is part of a team pushing legislation in Idaho that would prohibit the death penalty from being imposed on the severely mentally ill and juveniles.

Sanders said the ACLU of Idaho took steps to pass the legislation during the past legislative cycle but fell short when its sponsor lost interest in supporting the effort. Sanders said the ACLU is working toward finding a new sponsor for the upcoming session, and she hopes to at least obtain a hearing by 2019.

As a result of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Atkins v. Virginia, courts are prohibited from sentencing intellectually disabled individuals to capital punishment, Sanders said. She said the ruling established that those with intellectual disabilities are incapable of assisting in their own defense and are cognitively unable to understand the ramifications of such a severe sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court also stated that in such cases the retributive and deterrence standards cannot be met, she said.

Idaho, however, does not have an insanity defense, which means those with severe mental illness can still be sentenced to the death penalty, Sanders said.

The Idaho Alliance for the Serious Mental Illness Death Penalty Exemption defines serious mental illness as a medical impairment that prevents a person from understanding the world around them, regulating their emotions or controlling their behavior. The alliance states that mental illness likely affects a person’s ability to understand their Miranda rights and their charges.

Sanders said she knows of one person suffering from severe mental illness who is currently on death row in Idaho. Across the nation, it is estimated that 5 to 10 percent of death row inmates suffer from severe mental illness, according to the alliance. Sanders said the organization also found that since 1983 more that 60 severely mentally ill inmates have been executed in the United States.

Sanders said 12 states already prohibit the death penalty and 18 have excluded juveniles from being subject to capital punishment. Idaho does not fall into either of those categories.

As with the mentally ill, Sanders said juveniles lack the ability to weigh consequences and the maturity to understand the ramifications of severe punishments. She said life sentences without the possibility of parole should also be prohibited, because many are able to be rehabilitated as adults.

Sanders said the United Nations and the European Union have already adopted anti-capital punishment legislation and the global attitude about the sentence is changing. She said the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is also constantly changing, and what might have warranted capital punishment in the past might not warrant it today.


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