Kentucky Lawmakers Bar Death Penalty for People with Serious Mental Illness


Kentucky lawmakers delivered a bill to Gov. Andy Beshear last week that prohibits imposing the death penalty on people with serious mental illness.

House Bill 269 provides that a person who has active symptoms and a documented diagnosis of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and/or delusional disorder at the time of the offense “shall not be subject to execution.”

Under the bill, a person accused of a capital offense must file a motion at least 120 days before trial and, if the trial court determines that they meet the bill’s requirements, the case will proceed to a noncapital trial.

The House passed a similar bill last year, but after it failed to reach a vote in the state Senate, lead sponsor Rep. Chad McCoy revised the legislation to gain the support of key senators. The revised bill limits the qualifying illnesses and requires that the defendant have a professional diagnosis.

“Here’s the change they needed, and here’s what is does: You now have to have a documented history and diagnosis from a mental health professional, and we define that expressly in the bill,” Mr. McCoy said.

With 21 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, HB 269 passed by a vote of 76-19 in the House on February 9, and the Republican-controlled Senate voted 25-9 in favor of the bill on March 25.

“You can’t say we’re pro-life and then say ‘except,’” Sen. Stephen Meredith (R-Leitchfield) said. “There’s no exception, all life has to be precious.”

If the bill is signed by Gov. Beshear, a Democrat, Kentucky will become the second state in the country to bar the execution of people with serious mental illness.

Ohio lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the nation’s first ban on the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. It was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine on January 9, 2021.

Similar measures have been considered in at least a dozen other states over the past decade, reflecting a shift in public opinion against the death penalty for people who are severely mentally ill.

DPIC reports that Republican lawmakers in Florida, South Dakota, and Tennessee introduced similar bills this legislative session.

Unlike Ohio’s law, which gave those who had already been sentenced to death one year to petition the court to vacate their death sentences under the new law, the Kentucky bill does not apply retroactively to the 26 people currently facing execution in the state.

Kentucky has not carried out an execution since 2008.