A better law for North Carolina Apr 1, 2010 21:39:35 GMT -5
Post by pumpkinpie on Apr 1, 2010 21:39:35 GMT -5
Published Sun, Mar 28, 2010 02:00 AM
Modified Sat, Mar 27, 2010 11:58 PM A better law for North Carolina
BY KRISTIN PARKS AND JOHN TOTE
RALEIGH -- Last week a Cumberland County jury sentenced Abdullah El-Amin Shareef to life in prison without parole. Prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty. Shareef committed a senseless and terrible crime - in April 2004 he stole a city van, hit and injured three men, then ran over and killed another man, Lonel Bass. He stole Bass' truck, hit yet another man, then crashed the truck and was arrested. All of these people were strangers to Shareef.
Why did this unthinkable event occur? Tragically, it happened because, just before the incident, Shareef had been turned away from a local mental health program, so his paranoid schizophrenia went untreated. Mental illness explains why, despite temperatures in the 40s, he was wearing only a T-shirt and underwear when he was arrested.
Was a painful and expensive death penalty trial the best route to punishment?
Shareef's life began to unravel a few years before the crimes. His wife recounted how he once tried to strangle their child, stating that because he was Abraham, God told him he needed to sacrifice his son. He told her he made a tremor happen in Richmond and that he could make the clouds disappear. He was agitated all the time. He danced around the room like a child, then became mean and physically aggressive. He talked to himself constantly. He was twice admitted to Dorothea Dix Hospital.
In early April, Shareef's father and a family friend went to a mental health program to get help for him. They were turned away and told to come back in two weeks. During those two weeks, Shareef committed the tragic crimes.
Immediately after his arrest, Shareef was seen by his lawyer and by mental health experts, who described him as unresponsive and mumbling to himself. Two months later, Shareef told a doctor that he was God and that he was "telepathing and teleporting." He said he owned several companies, including McDonald's and Reebok, and was working on a plan to fix the nation's deficit.
Shareef was declared incompetent to stand trial until recently, when after years of treatment and medication a judge decided he could be tried. During the trial, a psychiatrist explained to the jury that Shareef's behavior on the day of incident "was the result of an extreme condition of psychosis."
A death penalty trial is a long and heartbreaking experience for victims' families, and likely especially so when they want the offender executed but the verdict is life. In the Shareef trial, much pain and many resources could have been saved had a law that has been proposed in the General Assembly been in effect.
That law would prevent the execution of people with serious mental illness, capping their punishment at life without parole. Attorneys would present to a judge, before a trial begins, evidence regarding a defendant's mental state at the time of the crime.
In the Shareef case, the judge could have heard the voluminous evidence of Shareef's paranoid schizophrenia and how the illness rendered him incapable of making rational choices at the time of his crimes. If the judge had decided that Shareef's mental illness was severe enough, he would have taken the death penalty off the table and Shareef would have faced life without parole, saving the families from an extremely long proceeding and saving the state tens of thousands of dollars. Death penalty trials cost at least three times as much as non-death penalty trials.
Instead, Shareef's lawyers presented an insanity defense, a rare and even more rarely successful defense. The jury rejected it. When a sentencing hearing was held, they chose life over death. Had they found Shareef not guilty by reason of insanity, he would have been sent to a mental hospital for an indeterminate amount of time. Under the proposed law, which is not a substitute for an insanity defense, his punishment would have been life without parole, the eventual actual verdict.
Passing a bill that would exempt seriously mentally ill offenders from the death penalty is not a novel idea; in fact, it is supported by the American and N.C. Psychiatric and Psychological Associations, the American Bar Association, Disability Rights N.C., the Mental Health Association-N.C., NAMI-N.C., the ARC of N.C., and NASW-N.C., just to name a few.
It is entirely consistent with laws that have already been enacted that exempt people with mental retardation and juveniles from the death penalty; if the death penalty is to be reserved for the "worst of the worst," surely people with severe mental disabilities, like people with mental retardation and juveniles, do not fit in that small category of offenders.
The public supports it, too. Polling shows that 75 percent of Americans oppose executing people with serious mental illness. As a moral and a practical matter, North Carolina should enact this common-sense law.
Kristin Parks is with Disability Rights N.C. John Tote is executive director of the Mental Health Association - N.C.
Read more: www.newsobserver.com/2010/03/28/408647/a-better-law-for-north-carolina.html#ixzz0jp8mjyeW