NOTE: This article was originally published in the Bristol Herald-Courier on Nov. 30, 2017, and is reposted here with permission from that publication. The author's views are her own and not necessarily those of the ACLU of Virginia.

By Rachel A. Sutphin
Senior in the Honors College at Virginia Tech

As a family member who has suffered the death of a loved one to homicide, I support legislation in the Virginia General Assembly that would exclude people with severe mental illness from the death penalty.

I am the daughter of the late Corporal Eric Sutphin, who was killed by William Morva during a manhunt in 2006. My dad was and is my hero. He was so courageous, humble and light-hearted. The community loved him, and I loved being a police officer’s daughter. I have every reason to hate Mr. Morva and want revenge. Yet, when clemency was denied to Morva and he was executed this July, I felt great sorrow. It provided no solace for my loss.

Under this proposed legislation, offenders with severe mental illness at the time of the crime could be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole if found guilty — but could not be executed. For this narrow exemption to apply, defendants must have documented evidence of a mental illness that is so severe it prevented them from fully understanding reality and the consequences of their actions — making them undeserving of the ultimate punishment.

It is already unconstitutional to execute those with intellectual disability because of their similar impairments and inabilities to fully understand the implications of their actions and the complex legal processes they face. Excluding people with severe mental disorders or disabilities from the death penalty would simply treat these individuals the same way that we treat people with intellectual disabilities.

Seeking the death penalty in these cases is inefficient, ineffective and traumatic for many families. Such capital prosecutions:

  • Distract the public and the judicial system from the more important issues of what victims’ families and their communities need to heal and become safer. Criminal justice funding for expensive capital murder trials could be better spent on much-needed and currently underfunded victim support programs that help victims’ families with funeral costs, counseling and other services.
  • Delay justice and the healing process for many family members who lost loved ones. Capital cases take many years to reach completion, forcing our families to deal with mandatory court appeals and the legal system much longer than with a non-capital trial or plea bargain.
  • Cause damage to the families of the offender. Many family members of defendants with mental illness were unable to access or afford medical care for their loved one who was suffering from mental illness prior to and when their crime was committed. There is a lack of preventative community treatment options for those with severe mental illness and limits on their treatment while incarcerated.

It would be far better to focus our limited resources on crime victims’ families support and preventive mental health treatment, rather than seeking death for those with severe mental illness. This proposal would not allow people who commit capital crimes to go free, but would ensure that the punishment appropriately matches the offender and would allow families to feel more confident that justice was served.