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South Dakota State Legislature considers abolishing death penalty for the extremely mentally ill

South Dakota State Legislature considers abolishing death penalty for the extremely mentally ill
Published: Feb. 24, 2022 at 8:08 AM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) -A pew research study from last year revealed that 60% of U.S. adults favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. There is concern about how to handle those who perpetrate horrible crimes, while also diagnosed with severe mental illness, unable to recognize what is real, and what isn’t.

Senate Bill 159 would abolish the death penalty for a person found to be guilty but severely mentally ill. Mental health advocate Phyllis Arends testified in favor of the bill.

“It’s not ‘I had a bad day and you know decided someone needed to be killed or whatever.’ No, they have to be truly psychotic,” said Arends.

For a person to qualify, psychotic symptoms would need to be documented previous to the crime. A drug-induced psychosis would not be included in the exemption. While the death penalty could be a deterrent for some, Arends says that isn’t the case for persons who can’t decipher reality.

“But it doesn’t deter someone if their brain isn’t thinking clearly,” said Arends.

Also advocating for the bill, Dennis Davis, of South Dakota for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

“I volunteer in prison and Sioux Falls and know a lot of the lifers there. I’m on a program called alternative to violence. You know, some people cannot recover, but most can,” said Davis.

Nearly eight-in-ten people nationwide say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death. Davis agrees.

“186 exonerees from death row. So how many innocent people have actually been executed,” said Davis.

Before passing the bill yesterday, Senators exchanged their thoughts.

Senator Brock Greenfield urged others to stop the bill from moving forward.

“Passing this bill will take one tool, if you will, out of their toolbox, and from time to time, it’s knowing that that hangs over a person’s head that leads to plea deals,” said Greenfield.

Senator David Wheeler objected to threatening someone with death to get a plea deal.

“The death penalty should never be considered a tool. In the toolbox. We should never coerce a plea on the threat of death,” said Wheeler.

As the House considers the bill next, Arends hopes South Dakotans consider fellow residents who struggle with mental health issues.

“As a mental health advocate, I wouldn’t be remiss if I didn’t say we need better services. So people don’t get into that state in the first place. But this issue right now is just if that happens, they should not be put to death. You know, life in prison without parole is punishment enough,” said Arends.

23 states currently do not have a death penalty for any reason.

Should the house approve the bill, it would then to Governor Noem’s desk to sign the bill into law.

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