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Panel: Weigh mental illness in capital cases

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Lawmakers should debate taking the death penalty off the table for killers with serious mental illness even before they're charged, under a recommendation approved Thursday by a committee examining capital punishment in the state.

Mental illness has long been a factor in deciding whether someone should be executed in Ohio, but the new proposal deals with eliminating it as an option upfront.

The proposal, approved 15-2 by the Ohio Supreme Court task force, recommends that lawmakers take up the question once the committee issues its final report early next year.

Cleveland appeals court Judge Kathleen Keough called it "an issue of common decency."

"A person suffering from serious mental illness should not be subject to the death penalty," Keough said.

The concept is a long way from becoming law. The recommendation first would need legislation, and that would be followed by a long debate in the General Assembly over the definition of serious mental illness.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor convened the committee last year to look at ways to improve the state's 32-year-old death penalty law while making it clear that proposals to eliminate the law were off-limits.

One of the cases the committee studied was that of death row inmate Edward Lang, sentenced to die for killing two men in a robbery in 2006. Lang received the death penalty despite a long history of mental health issues, including frequent stays in psychiatric facilities as a child and treatment with anti-psychotic medicine.

In a 2011 decision, former state Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton reluctantly upheld Lang's death sentence while holding him up as a reason lawmakers should debate the issue of mental illness and capital punishment. Stratton made the same argument to the capital punishment task force earlier this year.

Cleveland defense attorney John Parker, chairman of the subcommittee that made the mental illness recommendation, said members of his committee felt it was time to put the issue before lawmakers.

Many members of the task force, which includes defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges and lawmakers, were skeptical of the concept but agreed to recommend its consideration.

Franklin County prosecutor Ron O'Brien was among those predicting milder conditions of mental illness, such as attention-deficit disorder, might be used in the future as arguments to avoid death penalty charges.

But state public defender Tim Young said the recommendation dealt with only the most severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

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