Pedro Medina was a 19-year-old refugee from Cuba in 1980 when he was arrested, charged and sentenced to death for the murder of his next door neighbor. In 1997, Florida executed him in the electric chair.
His execution garnered national attention because the chair malfunctioned, causing flames to engulf his head and shoot up into the air. Few reports at the time included another important fact that was part of his trial: Medina, who repeatedly asserted his innocence from death row, had a diagnosis of serious mental illness at the time of the crime.
Florida is one of only 13 active death penalty states that executes people with serious mental illness. With pending Republican-sponsored legislation, state lawmakers have a chance to protect this vulnerable group from the death penalty. They should do so.
We know so much more today about serious mental illness than when Florida’s death penalty law was enacted in 1972. Everything we’ve learned indicates the need to treat people with serious mental illness differently in the criminal justice system.
Serious mental illness is relevant to everything from a defendant’s culpability to his ability to participate in the legal process.
Informed by medical and scientific breakthroughs over four decades, we now understand that biologically based brain disorders and illnesses can lead to psychoses, delusions, hallucinations, and other equally disabling psychological conditions that interfere with judgment, reasoning, and impulse control.
Just as with persons with intellectual disabilities and juveniles who are constitutionally protected from execution, defendants with these serious mental disorders are inherently less culpable than fully functioning defendants and should be categorically exempt from the death penalty.
Serious mental illness also impacts a person’s ability to participate in legal proceedings, to help or communicate with their attorneys, and to defend themselves. This makes them as a group, uniquely vulnerable to wrongful convictions, as well as to execution.
There is no penological justification for continuing to execute people with serious mental illness.
While studies on the death penalty have neither proven nor disproven a deterrent effect, it is clearly not a deterrent for persons who, because of symptomatic disease, have diminished judgment, reasoning, and impulse control. As for retribution, it can hardly be justified for people who are both more vulnerable and less culpable.
Other provisions in Florida’s law fail to provide complete or sufficient protection against the death penalty for people with serious mental illness.
For these reasons and more, a group of more than 60 organizations from across Florida, including more than a dozen mental health organizations, are calling on the Legislature to pass SB 770, sponsored by Sen Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and HB 1251, sponsored by Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, which would exempt capital defendants from the death penalty. Under this Republican-sponsored legislation, if found guilty, a person with serious mental illness would be sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
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Public opinion polls reveal strong majority support for this policy change — and that strong support extends across party lines. In Ohio, the first state to pass such a law last year, it has been largely seen as a positive change that will save taxpayer dollars and raise awareness of the need to improve access to mental health care.
Pedro Medina’s execution didn’t make us safer. It didn’t heal anyone’s pain. But it did leave behind one thing: a lingering sense that we should never do this again.
Celeste Fitzgerald of Clearwater is the coordinator of the Alliance to Protect People with Serious Mental Illness.