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Missouri Lawmakers Look at Prohibiting Capital Punishment for Those with a Mental Illness

Missouri's Capitol Building in 2017.
Meiying Wu / KBIA

Currently in Missouri, a person can be sentenced to death even if they have a serious mental illness. Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles, sponsored a bill that would change that.

The bill specifies which mental illnesses would be considered serious if it were passed into law. On the list: schizophrenia, bipolar symptoms, psychotic disorders, major depressive symptoms, delusional illnesses, traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Hannegan said he is pro-life from birth to death, but he also sponsored the bill for a personal reason: his sister was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He wants to change the way the law looks at people like his sister.

“I think a lot of juries just look at mental illness as you know like, oh my gosh that’s mental illness, that’s taboo,” Hannegan said. “So that’s, you know, going to be the aggravating cause of this. And they’re not taking into effect that that mental illness might be a reason and they don’t understand that mental illness.”

Jerry Givens, the former state executioner for Virginia, said legislators not only have to consider the ones sentenced to death, but also the people executing that sentence. He said the hardest days of the job were when people weren’t able to understand their circumstances.

“When you send these guys before them, and they don’t know exactly what’s going on, it makes it hard. It’s stressful enough on us to complete this task, but to try to complete it with all these problems, unnecessary problems, because it don’t have to be this way,” Givens said.

Those in opposition said the law already protects those with mental illnesses from death penalties because jurors must consider all factors in a crime.

If passed into law, Missouri would be the first state to prohibit capital punishment for those with certain mental illnesses.

Kassidy Arena was the Engagement Producer for KBIA from 2022-2023. In her role, she reported and produced stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focused on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.