U.S. cases about executing mentally retarded people

Mental retardation is an often misunderstood disability. Perhaps this can be attributed to the different levels of retardation. According to the American Association on Mental Retardation, this disability is characterized by sub-average functioning coinciding with deficiencies in adaptive behavior that manifest during the developmental period.

Case law

In the 1986 case of Ford v. Wainright, the question before the court was whether or not the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the execution of the insane. In writing for the majority, Justice Thurgood Marshall agreed that the evolving standards of the Eighth Amendment were in line with a maturing society. The execution of an insane person who was not responsible for his own actions was inhumane and did not serve any penological purpose.

The court also addressed the procedural issues with determining if a person was insane. It was determined that such decisions could not be placed solely on the shoulders of the executive branch but that a judicial hearing, which included full procedural rights, would be held to determine the mental status of the person. In its final ruling, the court found the execution of the insane to be unconstitutional.

In the 1989 case of Penry v. Lynaugh, the court addressed the same issue in regards to the mentally retarded. It held that executing offenders with mental retardation did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment protection of the Eighth Amendment. The primary issue in this case was the fact that Texas law did not allow juries to consider the mitigating factor of mental retardation at the sentencing phase of the trial. This case reached the Supreme Court yet again with Penry v. Johnson in 2001 and once again, Penry was sentenced to death. The following year, the court once again visited the issue of executing those with mental retardation.

The case of Atkins v. Virginia (2002) overturned the previous Penry decision when the court ruled that executing those with mental retardation did in fact violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. In its ruling, the court determined that a national consensus had emerged that wasn’t present when the Penry decision was made. According to this consensus mentally retarded offenders should not be executed. It was, however, left up to the individual states to determine their own definition of mental retardation.

Another factor considered in the Atkins decision was that of the relationship between mental retardation and the deterrence and retributive purposes of the death penalty. The justices determined that these purposes were not being served thus executing people with mental retardation was merely an imposition of needless pain and suffering upon a person who lacked the ability to engage in logical reasoning and learn from their experiences. Therefore, the death penalty was unlikely to deter other mentally retarded persons from committing crimes.

Other issues for consideration

The inability of the mentally retarded to communicate with the efficiency of the average offender can be interpreted as a lack of remorse by a jury. They also make poor witnesses because they are more apt to confess to crimes simply to please authorities. Together, these factors increase the chance that these offenders will be wrongfully executed.

Capital punishment has been reserved by the court for those deemed more depraved than the average murderer. Therefore, if an average murderer is not sufficiently eligible to receive the death penalty, persons with mental retardation should never receive a sentence of death.