Legal News
Court Bars Execution of Mentally Retarded Criminals
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 14 page 1-25

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to carry out a death penalty for prisoners with mental retardation. Doing so, the Court said, violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The laws of 20 states allow judges or juries to sentence such prisoners to death, though the Court’s June 20 decision invalidates all of them. The decision does not address the constitutionality of capital punishment in general, which the Court has previously ruled does not violate the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment covering cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the six-justice majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said that while mentally retarded persons who are convicted of crimes deserve to be punished, "[b]ecause of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, . . .they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct."

The decision also acknowledges that mental retardation in people accused of crimes can "jeopardize the reliability and fairness of capital proceedings" against them, since their ability to comprehend the legal process and assist their legal counsel may be compromised by their cognitive deficits.

The decision applies to convicted criminals considered to have mild mental retardation, generally those with an IQ between 50 and 70. The justices had indicated in an earlier ruling that the death penalty should not be imposed on profoundly retarded individuals.

The chair of the APA Committee on Judicial Action, Renée Binder, M.D., called the decision a particularly significant one "because it recognizes that there are objective and reliable determinations of whether an individual has mental retardation when the assessment is done by qualified professionals with substantial experience."

She added that the Court sent an important message by acknowledging that individuals with mental retardation "do not have the same level of culpability as adults who are not mentally retarded."

Marilyn Benoit, M.D., president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issued a statement after the decision was announced. She noted that as child psychiatrists, the organization’s members "know that mentally retarded adults often begin as mentally retarded children who don’t receive the proper intervention to help them. The answer to helping these offenders is appropriate intervention, not execution."

The decision in this case, Daryl Renard Atkins v. Virginia, negates the Court’s 1989 decision in Penry v. Lynaugh in which they ruled 5-4 that the Constitution does not bar states from executing mentally retarded inmates. In the 13 years since the justices ruled in Penry, the majority acknowledged that a consensus had developed in the states indicating that legislators and the public now believe that executing retarded convicts amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Constitutional concept of cruel and unusual punishment has always been a fluid one, Stevens indicated in the majority opinion. For example, while once accepted as fitting punishments, public floggings and use of stocks and pillories are now considered unacceptable. So it is, he wrote, with punishing the mentally retarded by executing them. Stevens quoted former Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote in a 1958 case that the Eighth Amendment "must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."


At the time of the Court’s decision in Penry, only two states that allow the death penalty—Georgia and Maryland—had barred executions of retarded persons. In the intervening years that number has increased to 18. This shift led the Court to search for a case that would allow it to reopen the issue. It originally identified a North Carolina case, but before the justices could hear the appeal, North Carolina passed a law barring such executions. It found such a case in appeal of a ruling in which the Virginia Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Daryl Atkins.

In the Atkins case, the petitioner was convicted of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder. Atkins and a partner, William Jones, were arrested for the crimes, and each accused the other of being the one who actually pulled the trigger. The jury decided that Jones’s testimony was "more coherent and credible. . .and sufficient to establish Atkins’s guilt," Stevens said in his decision. (Jones agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in exchange for not being eligible for the death penalty.) In the penalty phase of the original trial, a forensic psychologist who had evaluated Atkins testified that he was "mildly mentally retarded" and had an I.Q. of 59.

Because of a technical error by the trial court, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered a second sentencing hearing at which the state produced an expert witness who contradicted the psychologist’s conclusion and testified that Atkins was not retarded but was of "average intelligence, at least." As a result, Atkins’s death sentence was upheld.


The Court’s ruling points out that death-penalty jurisprudence relies on two justifications—that the drastic punishment serves as a deterrent to committing capital crimes and that the offender receives appropriate retribution for his or her acts.

Regarding deterrence, Stevens wrote that capital punishment is used only when murder is the result of premeditation and deliberation.

"The theory of deterrence," he noted, "is predicated upon the notion that the increased severity of the punishment will inhibit criminal actors from carrying out murderous conduct. Yet is is the same cognitive and behavioral impairments that make [mentally retarded] defendants less morally culpable—for example, the diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses—that also make it less likely that they can process the information of the possibility of execution as a penalty and, as a result, control their conduct based on that information."

The Court thus concluded that executing people with mental retardation will not "further the goal of deterrence."

As for retribution, since even the "average murderer" is spared a punishment as extreme as the death penalty, "the lesser culpability of the mentally retarded offender surely does not merit that form of retribution," Stevens emphasized. "Thus, pursuant to our narrowing jurisprudence, which seeks to ensure that only the most deserving of execution are put to death, an exclusion for the mentally retarded is appropriate."

Joining Stevens in the decision were justices David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Stephen Breyer.

The dissenting justices were the Court’s three most conservative—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. In reading a summary of his dissent from the bench, Scalia maintained that the growing national consensus the majority identified as crucial to their decision was an "artificial" one, and that the majority has short-circuited legitimate legislation in states that permit execution of mentally retarded criminals. Rehnquist said that the majority decision "resembles a post hoc rationalization for the majority’s subjectively preferred result rather than any objective effort to ascertain the content of an evolving standard of decency." He also decried the role his colleagues ascribed to public-opinion polls in their ruling, saying that they should have based their decision not on such surveys but on what state lawmakers have enacted and juries decided is not in fact cruel and unusual punishment for mentally retarded criminals.

The Supreme Court’s decision inAtkins v. Virginia can be accessed on the Web at www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/01slipopinion.html by clicking on the case name.

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