Severe Mental Illness and the Death Penalty

For the past five years, South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (SDADP) has presented bills before the South Dakota Legislature to abolish the death penalty in South Dakota. Each year our effort failed in committee to even get the bill to the floor for debate.

In 2017 we took a different approach. Following the guidance of the American Bar Association (ABA), we decided to present a bill that would exempt from the death penalty those who are severely mentally ill who had a psychotic episode at the time of the crime. “The rational for recommending this exemption is based on the recognition that, similarly to individuals with intellectual disability and juveniles, those with severe mental illness are less morally culpable than the ‘average offender.’” (ABA white paper, Death Penalty Due Process Review Project,
Dec. 2016)

It is estimated that 60% of the South Dakota prison population has in some form mild to extreme mental issues. There is a large percentage of the death row population in the United States with severe mental incapacity. In our recent history here in this state, James McVay who murdered a woman in her bed in Sioux Falls, (2014) was paranoid schizophrenic and taking meds in the prison. He pled guilty and mentally ill and still received the death penalty. A few months after the trial, James committed suicide in his cell. It is for inmates like these that we hope to end the death penalty in South Dakota as cruel and unusual punishment.

Denny Davis, SDADP


On Monday, January 8th at 6 pm, Dennis will be speaking prior to our board meeting about this bill. It is open to the public. Second floor of MetaBank, 600 Main Ave.
Craig Paul
President BEP.

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