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Court Rules Executions of the Retarded Unconstitutional

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court on June 20, 2002, ruled that convicted criminals who are mentally retarded may not be subject to the death penalty. The court ruled that such executions violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

"We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in a majority opinion.

"There is a serious question whether either justification underpinning the death penalty--retribution and deterrence of capital crimes--applies to mentally retarded offenders. As to retribution, the severity of the appropriate punishment necessarily depends on the offender's culpability ... As to deterrence, the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that make mentally retarded defendants less morally culpable also make it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty and, as a result, control their conduct based upon that information." 

In a dissenting view, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "seldom has an opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members."

Eighteen states already had laws banning the execution of retarded defendants convicted of capital crimes. The case, Atkins v. Virginia, involved a man with an IQ of 59 who had been convicted of murder.

-- 6/21/02

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