Among 640 California death row inmates are at least 30 who say they are mentally retarded, says the Los Angeles Times. Many more are expected to make similar claims as they obtain lawyers. Those claims could lead to the biggest exodus from death row since the state high court last struck down the death penalty – later reinstated – in 1976. Three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Dozens of people around the nation already have left death rows as a result, and many more cases are pending. Instead of being executed, convicted killers found to be mentally retarded are being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Each state is supposed to develop its own rules on who is retarded. “When you get on the borderline of mental retardation, it is an interpretative job,” said UC Davis psychology professor Keith Widaman. “There are times when it is essentially a judgment call, and I could understand it going either way.”