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THE NATION

Excerpts From Execution Decision

The Supreme Court

June 21, 2002

Excerpts from Thursday's Supreme Court decision on the execution of the mentally retarded:

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"Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes. Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct." -- Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority

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"Moreover, their impairments can jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings against mentally retarded defendants." -- Stevens

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"Not only does it ... find no support in the text or history of the Eighth Amendment; it does not even have support in current social attitudes regarding the conditions that render an otherwise just death penalty inappropriate." -- Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting

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"Seldom has an opinion of this Court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members." -- Scalia

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"It is not so much the number of these states that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of the change. The practice ... has become unusual, and it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it." -- Stevens

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"Mentally retarded defendants may be less able to give meaningful assistance to their counsel and are typically poor witnesses, and their demeanor may create an unwarranted impression of lack of remorse for their crimes." -- Stevens

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"We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty." -- Stevens

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"The Court pays lip service to these precedents as it miraculously extracts a 'national consensus' forbidding execution of the mentally retarded.... If one is to say, as the Court does today, that all executions of the mentally retarded are so morally repugnant as to violate our national 'standards of decency,' surely the 'consensus' it points to must be one that has set its righteous face against all such executions." -- Scalia

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"I agree with Justice Scalia ... that the Court's assessment of the current legislative judgment regarding the execution of defendants like petitioner more resembles a post hoc rationalization for the majority's subjectively preferred result rather than any objective effort to ascertain the content of an evolving standard of decency." -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, dissenting

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"In my view, these two sources--the work product of legislatures and sentencing jury determinations--ought to be the sole indicators by which courts ascertain the contemporary American conceptions of decency for purposes of the Eighth Amendment. They are the only objective indicia of contemporary values firmly supported by our precedents." -- Rehnquist

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"To further buttress its appraisal of contemporary societal values, the Court marshals public opinion poll results and evidence that several professional organizations and religious groups have adopted official positions opposing the imposition of the death penalty upon mentally retarded offenders.... In my view, none should be accorded any weight on the Eighth Amendment scale when the elected representatives of a State's populace have not deemed them persuasive enough to prompt legislative action." -- Rehnquist

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"The theory of deterrence in capital sentencing is predicated upon the notion that the increased severity of the punishment will inhibit criminal actors from carrying out murderous conduct. Yet it is the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that make these defendants less morally culpable--for example, the diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses--that also make it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty and, as a result, control their conduct based upon that information." -- Stevens

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"Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our 'evolving standards of decency,' we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive and that the Constitution 'places a substantive restriction on the States' power to take the life' of a mentally retarded offender." -- Stevens

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