New Retardation Standard Could Allow More Executions, Defense Lawyers Say


A new American Psychiatric Association standard to diagnose mental retardation could allow courts to execute convicted criminals with IQ scores below 70 more easily, death penalty lawyers tell Reuters. Each new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard guidebook used by clinicians to identify and diagnose psychiatric illnesses, is studied by mental health care providers and the pharmaceutical industry for changes in definitions as well as new categories of illnesses. Shifts can have great economic, social, and legal implications and often are controversial.

The book’s fifth edition, due May 22, has prompted concern from death penalty lawyers because of the change in the way the manual defines mental illness, or intellectual disability, the new name given in DSM-V. Earlier editions defined mental retardation as an IQ score below 70 plus an inability to meet certain developmental norms, such as bathing regularly or maintaining work. Based on that IQ benchmark, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002 that it is illegal to execute a mentally handicapped person. Editors of DSM-V dropped the 70 IQ score recommend that clinicians consider IQ scores while analyzing an individual’s behavior to determine if he or she meets the developmental standards.

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