Point/Counterpoint pt 1

Erin Roof

Death penalty archaic, unfair

Editor’s note: This column was written before The Associated Press reported Monday that a federal judge halted the March 8 execution of William H. Smith, a prisoner in Cincinnati.

It is scary that the nation that pushes its values and high moral fiber onto the rest of the world routinely kills mentally-ill people as law. This is exactly what is going to happen to William Smith on March 8 unless Gov. Taft interjects.

Smith has been on death row for nearly 17 years after being convicted of robbery, rape and murder. But the case is not black and white. Many factors should have been taken into more thorough consideration before giving Smith the death sentence.

Smith’s abusive childhood helped shape his personality. As a boy he was raped, beaten and abandoned. His mother was mentally ill, and his father was violent. He also spent much of his youth in a psychiatric facility where he was treated with anti-psychotic medication and electric shock therapy. Still dealing with cerebral dysfunction when he was released at 14, Smith lived on the streets and became addicted to alcohol and cocaine. A clinical psychologist concluded after his conviction that Smith’s addictions may have affected his criminal actions.

Smith did not have a just trial. The courts refused to accept his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, despite his being diagnosed with an organic brain disorder, which can cause confusion, delirium, agitation and dementia. Smith was convicted after only two days of trial. Unable to afford his own lawyers, he was subjected to the ill-preparedness and inadequate counsel of his court-appointed defense. They never even met with the one person, Dr. Nancy Schmidtgoessling, who could have saved Smith from his death penalty sentence. Schmidtgoessling, who evaluated Smith’s mental state for the trial, now says her testimony should not have been the center of the sentencing phase.

Too little. Too late.

Because Smith had an unfair trial and was too poor to choose his own lawyers, he will be executed instead of receiving the psychiatric care he needs.

This is normal in our country. More than 60 people diagnosed with mental retardation or mental disorders have been executed in our great nation since 1983.

Execution is an archaic form of punishment and should not be tolerated in a world of evolving human rights. We are one of the few industrialized nations to still allow the death penalty. Abolishing capital punishment will show the world that America respects the most important human right — the right to life — of all citizens, even the most dishonorable ones.

Sister Alice Gerdeman, president of Ohioans To Stop Execution, said, “Justice and mercy demand that Mr. Smith’s sentence be commuted. He is and was mentally ill. He needs treatment, not punishment. Society becomes safer when mental health issues are addressed as a matter of policy,” according to a press release from the organization.

Gov. Taft, please rethink your position on capital punishment. You allowed seven executions last year, second only to the governor of Texas. Give Ohio a reason to be respected and spare this man. Only you have the power to save William Smith’s life. Commute his sentence to life in a psychiatric facility where he can be treated for his cerebral dysfunction, organic brain disorder and brain lesions. His crime is heinous, but do not punish this man for being mentally ill.

Erin Roof is a junior magazine journalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].