Ohio murderer first in US taken off death row under law covering mentally ill
Ohio passed the law banning the death penalty for seriously mentally ill inmates earlier this year
By John Futty
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Columbus man sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her father has become the first inmate in Ohio removed from death row under a new state law that bans the execution of the seriously mentally ill.
The death sentence of David L. Braden, 61, was vacated last month by a Franklin County judge, who resentenced him to life without parole.
The county prosecutor's office and the state public defender's office agreed that Braden, at the time of his crime, met the criteria for serious mental illness under the new Ohio law, which went into effect April 12.
Both sides prepared an order that was signed by Common Pleas Judge Colleen O'Donnell.
Ohio was the first state to create such a law, thus Braden is also the first death-row inmate in the nation "to be removed from death row because of a statutory prohibition against executing people with a serious mental illness," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The Virginia legislature was close to approving a similar law late last year, Dunham said, but instead banned the death penalty in March, becoming the 23rd state to do so.
What types of 'serious mental illness' will prohibit the death penalty under Ohio law?
The Ohio law, House Bill 136, was overwhelmingly approved by the state House in June of last year and by the state Senate in December. Gov. Mike DeWine signed the measure in January and it became law 90 days later.
The law designates certain mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as qualifying disorders if the condition "significantly impaired the person's capacity to exercise rational judgment in relation to his or her conduct" or "to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness" of the conduct.
The law applies not only to current and future capital cases, but provides the possibility of postconviction relief for those already on death row who can establish that they qualified as seriously mentally ill at the time of their offense.
While prosecutors have the option to oppose such petitions and request a hearing before a judge, Janet Grubb, Franklin County first assistant prosecuting attorney, said a careful review of information from Braden's appellate attorneys made such a challenge unnecessary.
"We saw enough during the exchange of information to conclude that a reasonable fact-finder in our court would determine that this individual qualified under the statute," said Grubb, who signed the order on behalf of Prosecutor Gary Tyack's office.
Tyack, who was elected in November, had no involvement in the decision, Grubb said. Because Tyack served on the 10th District Court of Appeals for one of Braden's appeals, he had a conflict of interest that required Grubb to serve as prosecutor on the matter.
"Gary was completely walled off" from discussions about Braden's petition, Grubb said.
The murder case against David L. Braden
Braden was 39 when he was convicted by a Franklin County jury in May 1999 of fatally shooting Denise Roberts, 44, and Ralph "Bud" Heimlich, 83, at the home they shared on Barthel Avenue on the East Side on Aug. 3, 1998.
Testimony established that Braden and Roberts were seen arguing in a parking lot outside her workplace earlier in the day. A man matching his description was seen fleeing the victims' home after neighbors heard gunshots.
All of Braden's appeals over the years, including one heard by the Ohio Supreme Court, have been rejected, although a case in federal court was still pending.
Kathryn Sandford, an assistant state public defender who has handled Braden's appeals since his conviction, said the federal case will be dismissed as a result of the agreed order signed by O'Donnell.
Sandford and Steve Brown, a fellow assistant state public defender, filed the petition outlining Braden's qualifications for the serious-mental-illness designation.
They included the findings of a psychologist who determined that Braden suffered from "paranoid schizophrenia with delusions" before committing the murders.
Since the early to mid-1990s, they wrote, a brother and sister-in-law testified that Braden had made statements about being a prophet of God, while friends attested to his paranoia and alarming personality changes.
Since the beginning of his incarceration, Braden has been treated with anti-psychotic medication to control his psychotic symptoms, according to his attorneys.
A psychologist testified during the sentencing phase of Braden's trial that he was mentally ill, but the jury recommended a death sentence, which was imposed by then-Common Pleas Judge Michael H. Watson.
Changes in public opinion on the death penalty
The change in Ohio law, and its application to Braden's case, shows an evolution in the way the state legislature, the courts and the public have come to view the death penalty since Watson imposed the sentence, Sandford said.
The executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Ohio, one of the groups that pushed for the law, said he hopes the public understands that the serious-mental-illness criteria applies to a relatively small number of those on death row.
"This is not an opening for everyone to claim they're mentally ill," Terry Russell said. "You cannot fake schizophrenia. You cannot fake bipolar illness. The symptoms are such that when someone is seriously mentally ill, it can be recognized."
Russell added that Braden "is never going to get out of prison. He's going to be punished for what he did, and we support that."
As part of the prosecutor's office review of Braden's petition, it was required by a separate state law to contact the family of the victims to inform them of the request, Grubb said.
"The survivor we met with understood the position we were in," she said. "I think she reluctantly accepted that this was something that made sense on multiple levels."
Dunham, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the law "does not dishonor the victims" of those on death row.
"This is not about somebody who killed their loved ones being set free," he said. "This is about society making a judgment that there are certain classes of very ill people for whom it is inappropriate to carry out the death penalty."