October 04, 2019

ABA asks Nevada Supreme Court to reject death penalty for defendants with severe mental illness

CHICAGO, Oct. 4, 2019 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief late Thursday with the Nevada Supreme Court, urging the justices to rule that persons suffering from severe mental illness should not be sentenced to death under the state or U.S. constitutions.

The Nevada Supreme Court previously upheld the conviction of Siaosi Vanisi for the brutal murder of a Reno police officer. However, it sent the case back to a lower court in 2017 to consider whether Vanishi’s lawyers failed to present mitigating evidence of severe mental illness that could have prevented jurors from imposing the death sentence. He is now appealing a lower court’s decision to deny relief.

The ABA brief argues that the ruling it supports is needed because current national competency rules do not focus on a defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime, and “do not address the defendant’s culpability or the fairness of applying the death penalty to him.”

In addition, the brief said that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the death penalty for “intellectually disabled individuals and juveniles” and the court’s reasoning “applies with equal force” to defendants with severe mental illness.” Also, it points out that the Nevada constitution provides broader protection in death penalty sentences than the U.S. Constitution does.

“The state’s constitutional ban on cruel or unusual punishments is by its terms broader than the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments,” the brief said. It added that in Nevada “a punishment that is either cruel or unusual is unlawful.”

The amicus brief in Siaosi Vanisi v. William Gittere, Warden, Ely State Prison, Aaron Ford, Attorney General of Nevada, can be found here.  The ABA was represented on the amicus brief by the law firms of Goldstein & Russell, P.C. and Chesnoff & Schonfeld, P.C.

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