Parker: Supreme Court to Decide Who Gets to Define “Mentally Retarded” for Purposes of the Death Penalty
Hall was convicted of killing a pregnant woman and a deputy sheriff and, following the jury’s recommendation, the trial judge sentenced him to death. For 25 years he sat in his death row cell while his lawyers filed various appeals, all without success. Then the U. S. Supreme Court handed down Atkins v. Virginia in 2002, a 6-3 decision which held that the evolving standards of decency under the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment barred the execution of mentally retarded defendants. The case, however, left to the states the details of determining who was mentally retarded.
(Medical professionals rarely use the “retarded” term any more, preferring “intellectually disabled.” Since the cases and statutes continue to use the former term, I will too for the sake of clarity.)
The reasoning of Atkins was that the mentally retarded do not act with the same level of moral culpability because they lack the reasoning, judgment, and impulse control of normal adults. Although they still deserve sanctions for their crimes, executing them would not further the retribution and deterrence rationales which justify the ultimate penalty.
There were, perhaps, two subtexts in Atkins. First, the case was one more step in the growing public consensus in America that the application of the death penalty should either be eliminated or severely limited. It was one more chip in the capital punishment edifice that is incrementally crumbling.
Atkins was an important case in this evolution. Not only did it exempt another class of persons from the death penalty, but it recognized the development of a public consensus as a basis for doing so. The Court surveyed state legislatures and found 18 which had banned the practice. Add that number to the 13 which had at that time abolished the death penalty altogether, plus several others that had done so de facto and a trend became a consensus. Additionally the opinion included a provocative footnote suggesting a growing broader consensus against capital punishment. This the dissent vehemently decried, with Justice Scalia remarking that “seldom has an opinion of this Court rested so obviously on the personal views of its members.”
I wrote two columns earlier this year that in my view the death penalty was slowly dying and that outside of a small handful of states it has already become an anachronism. Full disclosure then and now, my personal view is that the death penalty in the 21st Century is morally wrong in a civilized society; that it can be freakishly wanton in its selection of people to execute; that its no-recourse finality strains the entire criminal justice system; that it provides precious little or no deterrence to craven impulsive murderers; and that there continues to be a possibility of a botched and inhumane administration of the instrument of death.
Most Americans, however, are increasingly concluding for entirely practical reasons that the application of the death penalty is simply too expensive, the appellate delays too laborious and uncertain, and the ultimate result too fraught with the intrusion of outside factors like race, poverty, unavailability of lethal drugs and the like.
More than any subjective factor of morality, the future of the death penalty is being determined by the growing sentiment that we simply cannot afford it. Even though a majority of Americans probably continue to believe that capital punishment is justified for the mass murderers we hear about on the news with disturbing regularity, they are no longer willing to pay the increasing price. Just as likely, pragmatic considerations in an era of economic insecurity affect those moral and practical decisions on whether as a society we need capital punishment.
The other point implied in Atkins is that the criminal justice system cannot guarantee a fair, reliable, and consistent result in capital cases involving an accused whose mental abilities are seriously subpar. Their limited ability to communicate and contribute to their own defense compromises even an effective defense counsel’s job. The result is that, either they plead to a non-capital sentence without a full consideration of their defenses, or they disproportionately face the one penalty which, if wrong, is unforgiving. Death.
Atkins seems to assume in its dictum that states will use the diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association. Most of the ones which at least nominally still have capital punishment do so. Juries, legislatures, judges, and governors have on quite a few occasions either rejected or overruled the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants.