Death Row Retardation Issues Debated In States


Nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded, citing the nation’s “evolving standards of decency,” states are coping with the definition of mental retardation, says the Christian Science Monitor. Some state legislators have provided a definition; elsewhere courts have. Many states rely on old, inconsistent methods. That keeps many mentally retarded people on death row indefinitely.

The Monitor says two recent Texas cases show just how slowly the process is moving, even when psychologists agree that solid evidence of mental retardation exists. Last week, a federal judge granted a 60-day reprieve to a schizophrenic death-row inmate one day before his execution so that a trial court could make a final determination of his competency. Prosecutors argue that the man should be put to death because he was sane at the time of the murders. Two weeks ago, a prosecutor recommended that another inmate’s death sentence be commuted to life in prison after the state’s psychologist agreed that the man was mentally retarded. It was the first time a Texas prosecutor had made such a recommendation since the high court ruling.

“Various states have been, in different ways, addressing the issue of people on death row with mental retardation. And some states have done a better job than others,” says David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “But states like Texas have been truly remiss in not developing a strategy for measuring the claims of mental retardation.”

“I don’t think there has been a massive acknowledgement that we’ve been putting the severely retarded on death row, but I do believe prosecutors have become more discriminating – in the good sense of that word – of whom they put on death row,” says Joshua Marquis, a board member of the National District Attorneys Association.


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