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The U.S. Supreme Court finally concurred with a belief...

June 24, 2002

The U.S. Supreme Court finally concurred with a belief long held by reasonable people. Executing a mentally retarded criminal is "cruel and unusual punishment" and violates the Constitution.

By 6 to 3, the court held that offenders with very low intelligence are not criminally responsible nor will they be deterred by the death penalty. Defendants who have the mind of a child can't communicate effectively, participate in their defense or even distinguish truth from fiction. It is neither fair nor moral to put them to death.

A telling footnote to the majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter, referred to the cases of two retarded inmates who confessed to murders and were on death row in Illinois and Virginia until DNA evidence exonerated them.

Cases involving mentally retarded criminals often are not clear-cut; in the case before them, the defendant was a murderer. But the court reached the right decision based in part on the growing national consensus against putting to death mentally retarded criminals.

Public opinion mattered in this decision because in a 1958 decision, then-Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the 8th Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment, "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Of the 38 states that allow the death penalty, 18 exempt retarded convicts. California is notoriously missing from that list.

Only two states, Georgia and Maryland, had such restrictions 13 years ago when an earlier decision allowed states to execute retarded criminals. That 1989 decision has now been reversed, but the new prohibition cannot remove the stain from the human rights record of the nation.

The barbarism may continue because the court leaves it up to the states to determine who has a low enough IQ to merit a pass on execution and who is subject to the death penalty despite having intelligence well below average. The decision should shame Gov. Gray Davis and the state Legislature into reconsidering how California applies the death penalty.

This Supreme Court decision does not excuse convicted criminals who are mentally retarded from appropriate punishment, such as life in prison. It does protect offenders who are as vulnerable as children from being put to death. That is a step in the right direction.

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