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August 30, 2005
 
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Daniels spares mentally ill killer
Man who was to die this week will spend life in prison; debate on issue likely to grow.

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About the Baird case
 
 

Gov. Mitch Daniels on Monday spared the life of convicted killer Arthur P. Baird II, adding fuel to a national debate over whether people with severe mental illnesses are fit to be executed.

"This appropriateness of executing the mentally ill is the issue of the moment," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.

Baird was to be executed early Wednesday in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City for the Sept. 6, 1985, stabbing deaths of his parents, Kathryn and Arthur Baird.

He also was sentenced to 60 years in prison for strangling his pregnant wife, Nadine, and eight years for killing his unborn child the day before his parents' slayings in Montgomery County.

Baird, who had never before been in legal trouble, has maintained that a "big, burly man" controlled his actions during the slayings. Mental health professionals who examined him recently agreed he was psychotic, or out of touch with reality.

Landis said his group, which helps coordinate death penalty appeals, is preparing legislation for the 2006 session that would make it illegal to execute severely mentally ill inmates. The difficulty for the General Assembly, Landis said, will be determining where to draw the line.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said whether mentally ill killers should be executed is a "quickly evolving" area of law that deserves the legislature's attention.

"This wasn't even an issue 20 years ago. You didn't even think about it," Bosma said. "Today, we look at people with mental health issues differently."

The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed executing minors and the mentally retarded, but the court has not directly addressed whether killing the mentally ill constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Daniels' decision to commute Baird's sentence to life in prison without parole probably makes an appeal to the Supreme Court filed by Baird's attorney Sarah L. Nagy irrelevant, at least in the court's eyes.

Nagy is glad her client won't be put to death, but she believes the Supreme Court should weigh in and says similar cases from around the country will make their way to the high court.

"This issue will not go away," she said.

Baird's is only the third case in which an Indiana governor has commuted a death sentence in nearly 50 years. Former Gov. Joe Kernan commuted two sentences during his 16 months in office. Baird would have been the fifth inmate executed since Daniels took office in January.

Daniels acted after a 3-1 vote last week in which the Parole Board recommended against clemency for Baird and after a 3-2 vote by the Indiana Supreme Court to let Baird's execution proceed.

For most of the past month, Baird has been in a holding cell away from the other Death Row inmates, said J. David Donahue, commissioner of the Department of Correction. Baird will be moved off Death Row but will remain at the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City until an appropriate place to put him is determined, Donahue said.

The Sisters of Providence, based at St. Mary of the Woods, called off Monday's prayer vigil for Baird, said Sister Rita Clare Gerardot, who organizes a service in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in western Indiana before each in-state execution.

"I am pleased because the psychologists and psychiatrists who examined this man said he was not competent," the Roman Catholic nun said. "We oppose the death penalty, so anytime a life is saved, we rejoice in that."

Baird was just hours away from eating his final meal in the Indiana State Prison when he received word of Daniels' decision. He learned his fate about 1 p.m. Monday in a phone call with his longtime defense attorney, Jessie Cook. She had been driving to the State Prison at Michigan City to join Baird for the 5 p.m. dinner when she heard of Daniels' action.

Daniels' staff made the decision public about noon in the governor's written statement.

Nagy, Baird's pro bono attorney, said her client seemed pleased. "We talked a lot about God," Nagy said. "And we agreed that God has a purpose for him."

Daniels' staff said he carefully reviewed evidence and listened to oral reports in his Statehouse office before making his decision. He watched videotape of Baird's interview before the Parole Board, focusing on Baird's statements about how God would turn back the hands of time to before the murders occurred. Daniels read -- and reread -- Baird's initial statements to police, as well as incoherent messages Baird had written.

"To some extent, that provided a window into Mr. Baird's mind at the time of the crime," said Steve Schultz, the governor's chief counsel. "It seems pretty clear the crimes wouldn't have occurred but for Mr. Baird's insanity."

In his statement, Daniels cited "unusual, probably unique" circumstances for calling off the execution. Daniels noted life in prison was not an option for jurors in Montgomery County to consider when Baird was sentenced to death; the option is available as an alternative in capital punishment cases now.

"The unanimous sentiment expressed by family members at the time of the trial and years later demonstrates that they believed life without parole was the most appropriate penalty for Mr. Baird," Daniels stated in his decision. "All members of the jury whose views are known also indicate that, had life without parole been an alternative available to them, they would have imposed it instead of the death penalty."

Because of his severe mental illness, Baird had rejected a term of years at the time of his trial that essentially would have kept him in prison for life, Daniels also noted.

"Courts recognized Mr. Baird as suffering from mental illness at the time he committed the murders, and Indiana Supreme Court Justice Ted Boehm recently wrote that Mr. Baird is 'insane in the ordinary sense of the word.' It is difficult to find reasons not to agree," Daniels stated. "However, I reached today's decision without substituting my judgment for others on the ambiguous issue of Mr. Baird's degree of insanity. To me, it suffices to note that, had the sentence of life without parole been available in 1987, the jury and the State would have imposed it with the support of the victims' families."

Conservative leaders say Daniels is unlikely to suffer political fallout.

"I don't think this will be seen as the governor backing away from the death penalty," said Curt Smith, president of the Indiana Family Institute, a conservative group that supports a "pro-family" agenda. "Clearly, there were extenuating circumstances."

Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association of Indiana, agreed, saying the concerns raised by Baird's mental condition justified special consideration.

Call Star reporter Kevin Corcoran at (317) 444-2750.

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