News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

United States bans the execution of “mentally retarded” prisoners

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 06 July 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:9
  1. Deborah Josefson
  1. Nebraska

    In a landmark decision the US Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute what it terms mentally retarded prisoners.

    The decision marks a reversal of a 1989 Supreme Court judgment that there was no national consensus against such executions and that they did not entail “cruel and unusual punishment” or violate the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. The new ban will apply to prisoners with IQs of 70 and under.

    The six to three ruling, made two weeks ago, involved the case of Atkins v Virginia. In 1996 Daryl Atkins, an 18 year old man with an IQ of 59, was convicted of murdering Eric Nesbitt, a 21 year old airman stationed at Langley airforce base in Virginia. The motive was to obtain money for beer. Nesbitt was shot eight times by Atkins and an accomplice.

    In reaching its decision the Supreme Court took into account evolving ethical standards and prevalent principles of international law.

    Writing for the majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that there was broad opposition, among professional and religious organisations and internationally, to executing mentally retarded people. Also, laws on capital punishment in 16 states already barred executing such people.

    He wrote: “We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or retributive purpose of the death penalty.”

    Casting the dissenting votes were Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Scalia and Rehnquist found it inappropriate to apply foreign standards to US law, “I fail to see, however, how the views of other countries regarding the punishment of their citizens provide any support for the Court's ultimate determination,” Rehnquist wrote.

    Scalia predicted that the decision would lead to multiple new appeals and give birth to an industry devoted to feigning mental retardation among prisoners on death row.

    He echoed Rehnquist's view on international standards: “Equally irrelevant are the practices of the ‘world community’ whose notions of justice are (thankfully) not always those of our people,” he said.

    The Supreme Court's decision was welcomed by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which had previously lobbied the United States and other executing nations to withhold the death penalty on any person “suffering from any form of mental disorder.”

    In the United States at least 35 prisoners with mental retardation or significant organic brain damage have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

    Currently 3701 inmates in the United States are on death row, up to 5% of whom would qualify as mentally retarded. With the new ban in the United States, only two countries remain that execute mentally deficient prisoners: Japan and Kyrgyzstan.

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