Advocates Speak Out Against Executing People Who Suffer From Severe And Persistent Mental Illness

More than 220 attendees gathered at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s University Center last night to hear the stories of two brothers, both deeply affected by mental illness and the criminal justice system. David Kacyznski, brother of Ted Kaczynski (the so-called Unabomber), spoke about how unimaginable it was that his older brother Ted, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, could be the most wanted man in America. While Ted Kaczynski would plead guilty and receive a life sentence, David reminded the audience that not all people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness receive similar treatment.

Bill Babbitt reiterated this point when speaking about his brother Manny, who was executed in California on his 50th birthday. A decorated war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, Manny Babbitt was sentenced to death after a woman he assaulted died of a heart attack. Bill Babbitt admitted during his presentation that he “was always a believer in the death penalty … until it came knocking on my door.”

Both speakers stressed the importance of a criminal justice system that recognizes people with severe and persistent mental illness as “more likely to make false confessions and more commonly fire their lawyers and represent themselves in court.”  Following the presentation, representatives from the National Alliance on Mental Illness urged attendees to support legislation in Tennessee that would exclude people who suffer from severe and persistent mental illness from the death penalty just as people with intellectual disability are currently excluded.

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