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Criminally insane would be denied vote under bill

It happened again Tuesday, as it does in most every election: Howard Unruh, the man who killed 13 people in a 1949 Camden shooting spree, voted and the Mercer County Board of Elections declared his ballot invalid.

Though his ballot was not counted, the possibility of voting by Unruh and other people who have committed heinous crimes but have not been convicted either because they were found not competent to stand trial or because they were not guilty by reason of insanity sparked outrage among some officials this week.

State Sen. Shirley Turner, a Democrat from Lawrenceville, said that she is drafting a bill that would bar the criminally insane from voting.

“These are the people who have been determined not to know right from wrong — which is why they’re in a psychiatric facility,” she said.

The dustup began when about 40 patients at Ann Klein Forensic Center, which serves about 200 people with severe mental illness who are also in the judicial system, submitted absentee ballots in Mercer County for this week’s election.

Mercer County Republicans challenged the votes.

They were able to show that seven of the patients were sex offenders on parole for life and therefore ineligible.

Also disqualified was the vote cast by Unruh, now 87, who was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial for his killing spree and who is a patient at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital — a high-security facility near the Ann Klein center.

The votes of 33 other Ann Klein patients withstood the challenge and were among the 3.65 million votes counted in New Jersey.

It is unclear how many patients there may have voted by absentee ballot in other counties.

Pam Ronan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said there are 229 people in the five state psychiatric hospitals because they have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Ronan said her department believes that people are eligible to vote unless they are serving a prison sentence, parole, probation or have been found by a judge not to be competent to understand voting.

By that definition, Unruh might be eligible.

Ronan said patients around the state are told about the election and given voter registration applications and absentee ballots if they request them.

“Our practice is to respect the patient’s civil rights,” she said.

Officials who object to the Ann Klein patients voting say they aren’t concerned if most of the 2,000 or so state psychiatric hospital patients vote.

“There are many people who are committed but are suffering mental diseases,” said Paula Sollami Covello, the Mercer County clerk who was upset that her job required her to grant absentee ballots to Ann Klein patients. “But they are able to understand what they are doing.”

November 10, 2008 - Posted by | News | ,

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