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Death penalty exception for severely mentally ill passes committee

Senator Timothy Johns & Senator Art Rusch

Severely mentally ill defendants will not face the death penalty in South Dakota if a bill passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to move through the legislature.

Senate Bill 159 defines severe mental illness and lays out criteria to meet before a defendant can use the law’s protections.

Rapid City psychiatrist Steve Manlove testified that extreme mental illness involves delusions, hallucinations, voices telling a person what to do, and fixed beliefs that belie reality.

He summed up the theory behind the bill.

“A person whose mental illness is so out of control that they are psychotic and cannot understand reality may have a different level of culpability or blameworthiness than a person who is not,” he said.

The bill’s prime sponsor is Sen. Timothy Johns, an attorney and retired judge from Lawrence County .

He pointed out the difficulty defendants face in trying to use this defense. They would need medically documented evidence that the condition existed before the crime was committed and that they committed the crime because of the mental illness.

“This last element will be extremely difficult to ever meet, as a person not only has a severe mental illness, but it must be a causative effect leading to their actions,” Johns said.

Opponents to the bill included the state Attorney General, represented in the hearing by Stephen Gemar. He said the bill could create more procedural hurdles in capital cases.

“There would be currently more hearings over a defendant’s mental illness than there are now, which would include more experts that the state would foot the bill for,” Gemar said. “Finally, there would be more issues for a defendant to appeal.”

In rebuttal, Sen. Art Rusch said he was troubled by that argument.

“You know, if we’re talking about killing people, I don’t think there’s any harm in making sure we have the right procedural hurdles to do that,” he said.

Committee members expressed concern that the bill offers protections to people who are experiencing drug-induced psychosis. In response, Sen. Johns agreed to amend the bill to exclude them, and the committee gave a do-pass recommendation.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.