At least 10 Georgia death row inmates who say they are mentally retarded have lost a critical appeal. The state supreme court, by a 4 to 3 vote, upheld a 1988 law requiring death penalty defendants who claim mental retardation to prove beyond a reasonable doubt — the highest standard possible — that they are retarded and exempt from capital punishment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says Georgia remains the only state with such a stringent rule.
Defense attorney Tom Dunn said 10 death row inmates are seeking new trials based on claims of mental retardation. Many want juries to be allowed to decide by a “preponderance” of the evidence” a lower standard than beyond reasonable doubt. The inmates will ask federal courts to overturn the Georgia law.
Death penalty lawyers said the court’s ruling maintains an almost insurmountable hurdle for mentally retarded defendants. “It’s an intolerable burden to prove mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Mike Mears, who heads the state office that defends indigent death penalty defendants. “What the state Supreme Court has done is create an illusion of justice that doesn’t exist.”
Tommy Floyd, district attorney for the Flint Judicial Circuit, believes the standard is appropriate. “This is not about the people who are obviously mentally retarded, because prosecutors are not going to seek the death penalty against them,” he said. “It’s these people on the borderline, where intelligent people can disagree. And because so much benefit can flow to the defendant if he’s found mentally retarded, I think he should have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”