ACLU of Illinois Urges Support for Legislative Ban On Executing the Mentally Retarded

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
January 27, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Illinois
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CHICAGO, IL — Heralding an important “first step” in establishing fairness and humanity in Illinois’ discredited death penalty system, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today endorsed legislation filed in the state House and Senate to ban the execution of mentally retarded persons.

The legislation, proposed by State Senator John Cullerton (D-Chicago) and Representative Calvin Giles (D-Chicago), calls for the judge in a first degree murder case to hold a hearing when the issue of a defendant’s mental retardation is raised by the State, by the defense or by the court. Such a hearing can be held at any point in the trial process — before, during or after the trial is completed.

If the defendant is found to be mentally retarded by the court, the death penalty cannot be imposed. Senate Bill 1488 was filed on January 26, 2000, the House Bill will be filed today.

“This is an issue of fundamental fairness that deserves support from every person in Illinois,” said ACLU attorney Benjamin Wolf in announcing the organization’s support. “The sad, sordid history of the death penalty system in Illinois shows that it is drastically flawed, with more persons now exonerated than executed.”

“With that record,” he added, “how can we possibly apply the death penalty to persons who might not understand what is happening, might be more likely to be duped by police questioning and might be unable to assist meaningfully in their own defense? The legislature should act quickly to adopt this common sense legislation.”

A national survey conducted nearly two years ago by the Death Penalty Information Center revealed that more than 30 mentally retarded persons already had been executed in the United States.

Included in this tragic group is Girvies Davis, executed by the State of Illinois on May 17, 1995. Mr. Davis was diagnosed as being “borderline mentally retarded.” Most of the others on this shameful list had IQS below 70, and at least one person who has been executed was tested at an IQ level of only 55.

In a recent dramatic case in Texas, a former teacher of a death row inmate with an IQ of 54 said that the inmate “could not understand any of the things that I would ask of him. He couldn’t reason logically.”

“Given the necessity for a defendant to be actively, intellectually engaged in their own defense, this is an important first step in creating fairness in the death penalty system of Illinois,” said Wolf.

The proposed ban on executing the mentally retarded is just the latest action aimed at addressing flaws in Illinois’ death penalty system. Indeed, a recent series of stories by the Chicago Tribune concluded that “Capital punishment in Illinois is a system so riddled with faulty evidence, unscrupulous trail tactics and legal incompetence that justice has been forsaken.”

The ACLU joins many religious, legal and mental health organizations in support of the proposed ban on execution of the mentally retarded. Among these organizations is ARC of Illinois, a voluntary association of families of people with mental retardation and service providers.

Twelve states already have adopted bans on executions of the mentally retarded. Such executions are now expressly prohibited by international law. No other democracy has confirmed the execution of an individual who was mentally retarded.

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