Florida bill would prohibit executing mentally ill

Florida's death chamber at Florida State Prison
Florida's death chamber at Florida State Prison

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida would be banned from executing people with a severe mental illness under legislation approved by a Senate Committee in the state Capitol.

It has the support of death row’s former medical director.

Dr. Joe Thornton is a psychiatrist and former death row medical director.

He told us the state has executed the mentally ill in the past.

“Oh, absolutely. We’ve done that knowingly,” said Thornton.

Florida has executed at least three known mentally ill men: Thomas Provenzano, John Ferguson and Bobby Joe Long.

There are likely many more, and Doctor Thornton said many are veterans.

“Eighteen percent of people on death row are veterans. Twenty percent of the people executed in 2016 and 2017 were veterans. Generally, in almost each instance, their behavior started after they were released from military service,” said Thornton.

To qualify to be executed in Florida, a mentally ill inmate must know they did something wrong, that they are being punished for it and they must understand the punishment.

“It’s a very low bar,” said Senator Jeff Brandes.

Brandes is behind the effort to prevent executions of the mentally ill.

“If we’re going to have the death penalty, then lets at least have a policy that recognizes people have significant mental illnesses, Schizophrenia and other types of mental illnesses, then those sorts of people shouldn’t be there, exposed to the death penalty when the reason they committed their crime is they had a significant mental illness,” said Brandes.

Thornton said it’s about time.

“If you do not have that awareness, you’re basically doing euthanasia,” said Thornton.

Under the legislation, the mentally ill don’t get a free pass. They can still be sentenced to life without parole.

Thornton added more drug and veterans courts could identify and treat mental problems, resulting in fewer violent crimes.