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EDITORIAL

Cruel and unusual evolving standard

Friday, September 6, 2013 - 12:01 am

We need to reconcile legal "insanity" with midical "mentally ill."

Even the most zealous strict constructionists have to realize that sometimes the Constitution must evolve as it is interpreted and reinterpreted based on contemporary standards. “Cruel and unusual” punishment is prohibited, for example, but no definition is given. What we consider cruel and unusual changes from generation to generation, so how we apply the Constitution to criminals.

One of the areas of greatest change is that of capital punishment and mental capacity. We don’t execute children because they don’t have the ability to make moral choices. We don’t execute the mentally retarded because they lack the capacity to understand the relationship between actions and consequences.

But how about the severely mentally ill, who may have committed heinous acts without being able to stop themselves because of defective brain chemistry over which they had no control? That’s still very much up in the air and needs much more debate than it’s getting.

Consider, for example, the case of Michael Overstreet, who is facing the death sentence for the abduction, rape and slaying of a former Franklin College coed. The Indiana Supreme Court has granted him a new hearing so the Johnson Superior Court can make a judgment on new claims by his attorney and a psychiatrist that the convicted killer “does not have, and does not have the ability to produce, a rational understanding of why the state of Indiana plans to execute him.”

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, prohibits the execution of a person who is “insane,” which is defined as being unaware of the punishment they are about to receive or why they are about to suffer it. They cannot understand the link between crime and punishment.

But that applies to the here and now – the state a prisoner is currently in. It has nothing whatsoever to do with his mental state at the time of the crime. He could have been the sanest person on the planet while murdering someone and still avoid execution if he is deemed insane today.

And insanity is a legal definition, not a medical one. The medical community tries to assess “severe” or “profound” mental illness. At the time of the crime (an important distinction), was the person rational or not. Was any irrationality the result of an organic defect, the product of environmental factors or some combination? How aware was the person of his mental illness, and how did the illness affect his behavior?

Those aren’t easy questions, and until we reconcile the legal and mental approaches, we won’t be close to answering them, and our law may lag behind where society thinks it should be in applying the cruel-and-unusual standard.