American Bar Association Seeks Ruling on Execution of Mentally Ill Inmates

The American Bar Association has asked the Nevada Supreme Court to rule on a case that questions whether or not severely mentally ill people should be executed for their crimes, according to U.S. News and World and The Associated Press.

The ABA has joined a group of lawyers and legal scholars who say that severe mental illness should make an individual ineligible for the death penalty. They are arguing an appeal of the case of Siaosi Vanisi, who was found guilty of the 1998 murder of a University of Nevada-Reno campus police officer.

Vanisi was accused of using a hatchet to kill Sgt. George Sullivan, who was found sitting dead in his cruiser. Vanisi was also convicted of using Sullivan's service revolver to rob a nearby convenience store. After fleeing the scene, Vanisi was subsequently arrested after a standoff with Salt Lake City police.

Vanisi's lawyers filed motions to withdraw from the case during initial trial—in part because he avoided their attempts to prove he was competent to stand trial.

One lawyer reported that Vanisi admitted to killing Sullivan but wanted to blame someone else for the crime in court, and that following his requests would allow him to perjure himself before the system. The ruling judge withdrew their requests and ruled Vanisi competent.

Vanisi responded to the notion of his lawyers arguing for a reduced sentence upon his behalf with disapproval, saying he didn't wish to spend his life in prison and wants a new, federal trial in spite of the disproportionate amount of evidence in the prosecution's favor.

In the latest appeal filed on his behalf, his lawyers point out in their statement that Vanisi had been "washing himself in his own urine," ''dancing naked," ''talking gibberish" and "attempting to sabotage his defense team" at various points during the first trial.

Stock photo of a statue of the scales of justice. Lawyers are requesting the Nevada Supreme Court weigh in as to whether or not mentally ill defendants should stand trial for the death penalty. Zolnierek/Getty

The Bar Association points out that this is a cardinal example of why mentally ill defendants shouldn't be subjected to the death penalty.

"Neither retribution nor deterrence is served by executing those whose perceptions of reality, logical reasoning and ability to exercise rational judgment are significantly impaired at the time of the crime," attorney Richard Shonfeld wrote in the ABA's brief filed Thursday.

"A mental health illness or disorder could be anything from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia to an excessive compulsive disorder like constantly washing your hands," Chief Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Noble responded on Tuesday. "Mental illness does not equate to insanity."

Nevada defendants can claim innocence by reason of insanity if they can prove they cannot distinguish between right or wrong as a result of a mental disease.