Indiana convicted killer Arthur P. Baird II’s life was spared last Monday based on “unusual, probably unique” circumstances, said Gov. Mitch Daniels. The Indianapolis Star said the act of mercy illustrates how governors can fill gaps in the law that permit the execution of people with severe mental illnesses. The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the execution of minors and mentally retarded killers but has not directly addressed whether severely mentally ill inmates can be put to death.
Defense lawyers hope the court will craft a standard for mental illness. Until then, they must appeal to governors. “Commutation is meant for when the law hasn’t caught up with society,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which is critical of the way capital punishment is administered. Gov. Daniels spent considerable time weighing Baird’s mental state before concluding he is probably insane in the ordinary, if not legal, sense. Sentence commutations over mental illness in the 38 states with death penalties are rare. Dieter has seen only five, including Baird’s, that mention mental illness in the past 30 years.