Bill would protect the mentally ill
Andrea Weigl, Staff Writer
James Floyd Davis was sentenced to death for killing three people during a workplace shooting more than a decade ago at a Buncombe County tool plant. At least one psychiatrist has concluded that Davis was experiencing paranoid delusions and believed he was waging a "holy war" against co-workers conspiring against him.
A bill pending before the legislature would allow Davis, 59, who was diagnosed in 1973 as schizophrenic, to use his delusions at the time of the killings to try to have his death sentence overturned.
State Sen. Eleanor Kinnaird, a Carrboro Democrat, has proposed allowing defendants with severe mental illness to avoid the death penalty if they were too mentally ill to understand their actions at the time of their crimes. The defendant could either ask a judge to rule on the issue before trial or ask a jury to consider it during the trial's sentencing. Those already on death row could file an appeal.
Kinnaird said the bill does not allow these defendants to avoid prosecution or punishment; they could still be charged and face spending the rest of their lives in prison.
But prosecutors oppose the bill, saying the measure is so broad that it could be applied to all murder defendants facing the death penalty.
"Every time, some hired gun comes in and espouses there's mental illness," said Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore, whose office prosecuted Davis. "We haven't tried anyone capitally in this state without some kind of diagnosis."
The bill does not say which diagnoses qualify someone as being severely mentally ill. Rather, the bill defines severe mental illness as someone being unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct, to use rational judgment or to conform their conduct to the law. Each side is likely to present competing testimony from mental health experts, and the question would be decided by a judge or a jury.
Moore said the jury in Davis' trial considered evidence about his mental illness and still sentenced him to death. Moore said a psychiatrist recently found Davis competent enough to fire his lawyers and drop his appeals. He described Davis as "lucid" and "articulate" during recent court hearings.
The rationale behind the bill is similar to successful efforts in recent years to outlaw the death penalty for juveniles and the mentally retarded: a killer's young age, limited mental functioning and severe mental illness make them less culpable for their crimes and not deserving of the death penalty.
"By a certain reasoning, people with certain mental illnesses can be held responsible, but they aren't the worst of the worst because of the illness that they have," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit anti-death penalty group based in Washington.
Mental health advocates agree, saying the bill extends the protection already available to those who are mentally retarded to those with severe mental illness.
"These people probably have no real understanding of what occurred," said Julia Leggett, a lobbyist for the Alliance for Disability Advocates.
A few states eyeing it
North Carolina is one of at least three states, including Indiana and Washington, considering such a proposal. Connecticut is the only state that has such a law.
In a poll earlier this spring, 52 percent of 574 North Carolina voters surveyed said they would not support the death penalty for those with severe mental disability. The poll was released by N.C. Policy Watch, a progressive think tank, that hired Public Policy Polling to conduct the survey, which had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Last year, the American Bar Association, as well as The American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, passed identical resolutions about mentally ill defendants and the death penalty. The resolutions said defendants should not be executed if they had severe mental illness at the time of the crime or if their illness prevents them from helping their lawyers handle their appeals, leads them to give up their appeals or makes them unable to understand the purpose of their execution. North Carolina's legislation does not go that far.
But at least one of Davis' lawyers hopes the bill could help Davis and others on death row.
"There is a significant number on death row who are suffering from mental illness," Asheville lawyer Leah Broker said. "I don't think they got fair trials, especially in my client's case. It would give another avenue for review."
She said Davis' trial lawyers didn't present enough evidence about his history of mental illness that she believes could have swayed jurors. Davis' appeal based on those issues was filed in 2000 and has never been heard, she said.
On May 17, 1995, Davis killed co-workers Gerald Allman, Frank Knox and Anthony Balogh and injured Larry Codgill. Davis had been fired two days before the shooting. Knox's widow, Phyllis Knox, declined to comment about the legislation, although she has previously said she opposes the death penalty.
Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or firstname.lastname@example.org.