High Court Rules That Executing the Mentally Retarded Is "Cruel and Unusual" Punishment

June 20, 2002 12:00 am

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High Court Rules That Executing the Mentally Retarded Is “Cruel and Unusual” Punishment


WASHINGTON-In a landmark victory for death penalty opponents, the Supreme Court today ruled that executing people with mental retardation violates the Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment.

“The Supreme Court’s decision reflects a growing national concern over the fairness of the death penalty,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Capital Punishment Project, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing execution of people with mental retardation.

“We hope that the Supreme Court’s decision today will encourage lawmakers in Virginia and elsewhere to consider the other systemic problems with the death penalty, including racial bias, lack of competent counsel and procedural barriers that prevent courts from insuring that the death penalty is applied fairly,” she added.

Today’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452, invalidates the 20 state laws that currently allow such executions, including Virginia, where 24-year-old Daryl Renard Atkins was scheduled to be executed.

As the Court noted, lawmakers in Virginia who in the past had opposed death penalty reform this year came close to approving a bill banning the execution of mentally retarded persons.

When the Supreme Court first considered execution of the mentally retarded in 1989, it concluded that because only two states then explicitly outlawed the practice, no national consensus existed to invalidate such executions. Since then, 18 states and the federal government have banned the practice, offering an opening to attorneys for Atkins and advocates for death penalty reform.

Ultimately, Rust-Tierney said, a federal moratorium on the death penalty is needed until states address the wide range of systemic problems that have now been so widely documented and publicized.

The Supreme Court’s decision is online at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-8452.ZS.html

The ACLU’s brief in Atkins v. Virginia (which was originally submitted in McCarver v. North Carolina and refiled after that case was dismissed by the Supreme Court) can be found at: www.aclu.org/scotus/cases/18261lgl20010921.html.

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