INDIANA GOV. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R) acted wisely and humanely this week in commuting the death sentence of one Arthur Paul Baird II. There is no question that Mr. Baird killed his parents and his pregnant wife back in 1985. There is also little question that he is seriously mentally ill and was so then. His mental illness was clearly a significant factor in the killings and just as clearly led directly to his death sentence. Because of his delusional state, Mr. Baird inexplicably rejected a plea deal the state had offered him that would have spared his life. Jurors in his case have indicated that had life in prison without parole -- not an option in Indiana at the time -- been available, they would have chosen that rather than death. Family members were similarly inclined. Yet the state parole board recommended against clemency on a 3 to 1 vote, and the Indiana Supreme Court, also divided, likewise declined to step in. Mr. Daniels deserves credit for taking responsibility for preventing Mr. Baird's execution.
Technically, the governor did not peg his decision to Mr. Baird's psychosis. While he noted that the courts have recognized his mental illness -- with one state supreme court justice calling him "insane in the ordinary sense of the word" -- Mr. Daniels made a point of not "substituting my judgment . . . on the ambiguous issue of Mr. Baird's degree of insanity." Rather, he made his decision because in his judgment, Mr. Baird would not have been sentenced to death in 1987 had life without parole been an option. In that sense, the commutation is less of a stand against the barbarity of executing the severely mentally ill than we might have liked.
Still, other governors in recent years, faced with severely mentally ill inmates on death row, have averted their gaze and let them die. The Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded or those who were not of age at the time of their crimes. That it is still somehow okay to put to death a florid psychotic is a strange and amoral anomaly of contemporary American law, one that cries out for reform. Until that happens, however, executive clemency is the only viable protection. It is refreshing to see a governor willing to step up to the plate.