ACLU of PA Urges Passage of Legislation to End Death Penalty for those with Mental Retardation

March 18, 2002 12:00 am

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PHILADELPHIA–The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today urged state lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 26, legislation that would prohibit the execution of individuals with mental retardation.

“The ACLU believes that this legislation is a major step forward in addressing one of the most troubling aspects of the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania,”” said Larry Frankel, Executive Director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in testimony at a public hearing conducted by the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee in Harrisburg. Frankel noted that 18 other states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia have enacted similar legislation.

In testimony presented by other staff members, the ACLU reviewed the constitutional debate over the execution of people with mental retardation, including the 1989 United States Supreme Court decision, Penry v. Lynaugh that concluded that there was insufficient evidence of a national consensus, at that time, against executing persons with mental retardation to justify a constitutional prohibition.

The ACLU also discussed Atkins v. Commonwealth of Virginia, a current case before the United States Supreme Court. The Court is reconsidering its Penry decision in light of the sweeping change in public opinion that has taken place over the last decade.

As evidence of changing public opinion, the ACLU described what happened after news reports about the Atkins case stated that only the United States, Japan and Kyrgyzstan permitted the execution of persons with mental retardation. The reports elicited a quick response from Kyrgyzstan, whose Ambassador to the United States promptly declared that such executions are no longer permitted in his country.

The ACLU testified that many persons with mental retardation who are sentenced to death do not even understand what it means to be executed, and described the difficulties an individual with mental retardation may face while attempting to navigate the criminal justice system. Recent studies have shown that when an individual with mental retardation waives his or her Fifth Amendment rights and confesses to a crime, that waiver is almost certainly not ‘knowing and intelligent,’ as the Supreme Court’s decisions have long required, the ACLU said.

Further, when taken into police custody and interrogated, individuals with mental retardation are more likely than people with average IQs to confess and many times more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit. The ACLU’s testimony described the case of Earl Washington, Jr., a man with mental retardation who was subjected to a lengthy interrogation by the police. During that questioning, Washington confessed to a number of separate crimes, most of which, it was later determined, he could not possibly have committed. He was charged only in a murder case that had stumped police for over a year. Washington was tried and sentenced to death. He spent 18 years in prison, including 9 years on death row, and was finally granted an absolute pardon and released in 2001 after being exonerated by a series of DNA tests.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is working with other organizations concerned about the fair application of the death penalty and advocates for people with mental retardation in an effort to have Senate Bill 26 enacted into law during 2002.

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