Yesterday, Abdullah El-Amin Shareef was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The unanimous jury vote came after almost eight hours of deliberation, six and a half weeks of trial, and six years of waiting for the families on both sides.
The reason for the delay was not stalling or game-playing by either side. Shareef was in a mental hospital, deemed too mentally ill to stand trial. Shareef believed that he was God, and that he was capable of telepathy and teleportation. He believed that he owned the McDonalds and Reebok corporations, and that he had a plan to solve the nation’s budget crisis. It took years of constant psychiatric care for Mr. Shareef to be sane enough to appear in court.
Shareef never denied that he committed the crime, only that he was in control of his actions at the time. Shareef is a paranoid schizophrenic. The jury heard undisputed expert testimony that he was in a psychotic state when he killed Lonel Bass and injured four other people.
A person as mentally ill as Abdullah Shareef should never have faced the death penalty. He is not a cold-blooded killer – he is a person with a disease. The death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst, not people too delusional to even stand trial.
Had it become law, a bill presented in the General Assembly last session could have brought this case to a speedy and just conclusion. Under Senate Bill 309 (H137), a person with severe mental illness would automatically be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole upon conviction of first-degree murder. With the death penalty off the table, there would have been no need for a prolonged trial. The case might even have pled early on. The financial and emotional costs to both sides would have been greatly reduced. And the result would have been the same.
DeathWatch hopes that the mental illness bill will be raised again in the next session of the General Assembly, and that our elected officials will consider the Shareef case an example of the need for such legislation. The jury’s vote shows that North Carolinians do not support the execution of the severely mentally ill.
DeathWatch also hopes that the Assembly will think of Shareef’s victims when considering whether to restore funding to community mental health services. This entire tragedy could have been avoided – Shareef’s family tried to get him help before his rampage, but they were turned away. The legislature has the power to spare future families the heartbreak that gripped Cumberland County six years ago.