Exempt People with Serious Mental Illness from the Death Penalty in Florida

Governor DeSantis & Legislative Leaders

People with serious mental illness have inherently limited culpability. As a group, they should not be subject to the death penalty.

We know far more today about the death penalty than we did when Florida enacted its death penalty statute in 1972. The drafters of the statute hoped it would deter violent crime, offer solace to survivors of murder victims, be applied fairly and accurately, and save tax dollars. It has not fulfilled these hopes. Instead, it has proven to be a risky, costly, and harmful policy.

To: Governor DeSantis & Legislative Leaders
From: [Your Name]

We urge an exemption from the death penalty for persons with serious mental illness (SMI). Persons with serious mental illness have inherently limited culpability. As a group they should not be subject to the death penalty.

We know far more today about the death penalty than we did when Florida enacted its death penalty statute in 1972. The drafters of the statute hoped it would deter violent crime, offer solace to survivors of murder victims, be applied fairly and accurately, and save tax dollars. It has not fulfilled these hopes. Instead, it has proven to be a risky, costly, and harmful policy.

We are especially concerned that persons with serious mental illness are not exempt from Florida’s death penalty.

Those who commit violent crimes while in the grip of a psychotic episode, hallucination, or other disabling psychological condition lack the rational judgment or understanding to be labeled deserving of death.

While jurors are required to consider serious mental illness as a mitigating factor in the sentencing phase of a capital trial, it is well known that weighing the mitigating and aggravating factors is a complicated process that fails to ensure that serious mental deficiencies are appropriately considered. Likewise, Florida’s extremely narrow insanity defense law fails to protect seriously mentally ill persons from execution.

Because serious mental illness is not always investigated in the initial trial phase, it is often raised in post-conviction proceedings. This leads to a longer process that is costly and painful for the victims’ families. Exempting persons with serious mental illness would ensure that appropriate cases are removed earlier, thereby saving these vulnerable families from decades of needless pain.

Persons with serious mental illness are especially vulnerable to wrongful convictions. They are at extremely high risk of false confessions, are subject to damaging stigmas associated with mental illness, including perceptions of dangerousness, and are less able to understand or participate in legal proceedings.

Florida has had 30 exonerations from death row, more than any other state. For every three executions Florida has carried out since 1979, one innocent person on death row has been exonerated.

There is significant and growing support for exempting the seriously mentally ill from the death penalty.

According to a December 1, 2014 poll by Public Policy Polling, Americans oppose the death penalty for persons with mental illness by a margin of 2 to 1.

Opposition to the exe­cu­tion of persons with men­tal ill­ness was strong across lines of race, gen­der, geo­graph­ic region, polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, and edu­ca­tion. Democrats (62%), Republicans (59%) and Independents (51%) all opposed the practice.

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Bar Association support banning the death penalty for the seriously mentally ill.

In 2021, the Republican-led legislature in Ohio passed an SMI bill, which was signed into law by a Republican Governor.

Thirty-five states either have no death penalty or have not had an execution in the last 10 years. Many of these states have hesitated to move forward with executions due to concerns around people suffering from severe mental illness at the time of their crime.

Governor DeSantis and leaders of the legislature, the time is right for Florida to end the death penalty for persons with serious mental illness. We urge you to take a leadership role to ensure that seriously mentally ill persons are not executed in Florida.