The United States has reached a collective moral judgment that mentally retarded individuals should not face the death penalty.
In a landmark 6-to-3 decision, the US Supreme Court Thursday declared a constitutional prohibition on imposing capital punishment on convicted murderers and other capital defendants who are deemed to be mentally retarded. The court ruled that such death sentences amounted to a form of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
It marks the first time since 1988 that the court has expanded the Eighth Amendment's categorical ban on an aspect of the death penalty. The immediate impact of the ruling will be to create new grounds for appeal for death-row inmates, legal analysts say, but the actual number of prisoners who may have their sentences changed from death to life in prison is likely to be small.
On a broader level, the decision adds momentum to efforts in the US to abolish the death penalty altogether an effort that has accelerated following the use of DNA evidence to uncover innocent convicts on death row. In addition, the decision opens the door to future cases examining the constitutionality of executing 16- and 17-year-olds, because similar constitutional reasoning may apply in such cases.
In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens writes, "We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty." He adds, "Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of our 'evolving standards of decency,' we therefore conclude that such punishment is excessive."
Signing on to his majority opinion were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia denounced the majority's decision as "the pinnacle of our Eighth Amendment death-is-different jurisprudence."
"Seldom has an opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members," Justice Scalia writes. He predicted a flood of appeals from death-row inmates falsely claiming to be mentally retarded.
Death-penalty opponents hailed the decision in Atkins v. Virginia as a major step forward for the nation.
"It makes the statement that this country is not going to execute people who have the mind of a child - we finally have now joined the rest of the world in that," says Jonathan Broun of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, N.C.
A majority of justices found that an evolving standard of decency related to the imposition of the death penalty had resulted in the emergence of a national consensus opposed to subjecting mentally retarded individuals to capital punishment.
Eighteen states have passed laws banning execution of the mentally retarded in certain circumstances. That total is up from two states that banned the practice the last time the high court considered a similar case in 1989. In addition, 12 states ban capital punishment altogether.
Citing this growing level of state legislative opposition, the justices said the nation has now reached enough agreement to justify the establishment of a constitutional rule to protect a special class of individuals from capital punishment.
Those with an IQ of 70 and below and who over an extended period have manifested some difficulty in day-to-day functioning are considered mentally retarded. Roughly 1 to 3 percent of the US population fall into this category, experts say.
The decision comes in the case of Daryl Renard Atkins who was convicted and sentenced to die as a result of the August 1996 shooting death in Yorktown, Va., of a US Air Force airman.
Mr. Atkins and another man, William Jones, abducted the airman at gunpoint outside a convenience store. They drove him in his own truck to a bank ATM machine and forced him to withdraw $200. Then they drove him to a remote location where the young serviceman was repeatedly shot. Atkins and Mr. Jones were arrested after police viewed the surveillance camera at the ATM machine.
Atkins was identified by a court-appointed psychologist as being mildly mentally retarded with an IQ of 59. Virginia officials dispute that Atkins is mentally retarded. The court's decision may necessitate further litigation in the Atkins case over whether he falls within the legal definition of retarded. If not, he could still be put to death as a result of his conviction.
Fourteen years ago, the high court ruled that a national consensus existed against executing anyone younger than 16. And in 1977, the court ruled that executing convicted rapists violated the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In the context of mental retardation, the court found that even though mentally retarded individuals may know the difference between right and wrong (the key issue in an insanity defense), they nonetheless lack the same level of blameworthiness or culpability as those without a mental disability. In effect, they lack the ability to fully understand how wrong their actions were.
"Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their personal culpability," writes Justice Stevens.
Stevens says in effect that since death is society's ultimate penalty it should be reserved only for the most blameworthy criminals. The court also says it is easier for police and prosecutors to maneuver mentally retarded suspects into death penalty cases. Thus, the opinion says, there is a higher chance of a wrongful conviction and a wrongful execution.
Liz Marlantes in Washington and Seth Stern in Boston contributed to this report.