In July 2015, as a Colorado jury debated the fate of James Holmes, a young man with schizophrenia who killed 13 people in a movie theater, I collected letters of support for his parents. From across the United States, mothers of young adults living with serious mental illness sent me their stories of trying and failing to get treatment for their children.
One mother wrote, “It wasn’t your beautiful son who hurt all those people. It was the untreated brain illness that is so misunderstood. People with schizophrenia are not evil; they are ill.”
Is it hard for you to feel sympathy for a murderer? While the Colorado shooting was awful, and the anger and grief of the victims is natural, parents of the nearly 10 million U.S. citizens living with serious mental illness understand that sentencing Holmes to death would only have exacerbated the tragedy. As the president of Boise’s National Alliance on Mental Illness affiliate, I support the Idaho Alliance for the Serious Mental Illness Death Penalty Exemption (IASMIE), a coalition of law enforcement officers, health care providers, faith leaders and advocates striving to find a better solution.
People living with untreated mental illness who commit violent crimes often lack the capacity to understand or control their behavior. As a mother of a young man who lived with untreated serious mental illness, I have seen firsthand the consequences of this choice-stealing brain disease. When treated, people living with serious mental illness are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. But community-based, high-quality treatment is still difficult to access for many individuals and their families.
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What does this mean for capital cases? Since 1983, more than 60 adults living with serious mental illness or intellectual disability have been executed across the country. Experts estimate that 20 percent of the people currently on death row live with serious mental illness. False media portrayals of “dangerous madmen” notwithstanding, this illness is largely genetic, and medical experts agree that “faking” symptoms of impairment is nearly impossible. In most cases, serious mental illness has been documented for years.
Idaho law currently excludes people living with intellectual disabilities from the death penalty. There are many reasons for extending this exemption to people living with mental illness. In addition to providing an ethical, compassionate approach, a death penalty exemption could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per case, while also ensuring that those convicted were still prosecuted and sentenced appropriately, including life without possibility of parole.
If you feel like someone living with a brain tumor would not deserve the death penalty, can you feel the same way for James Holmes? What would you want if your own child were sick and committed a capital crime? Creating a death penalty exemption will save money, but more importantly, it will acknowledge the medical reality that families like mine face. Behavioral symptoms of serious mental illness are not choices.
Liza Long is the president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Boise affiliate. She is also the author of “The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness.”