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Step toward limiting executions

Posted: Thursday, June 07, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune:

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Monday to overturn the death sentence of John Paul Penry provides hope that there's greater wisdom on the court these days than back in 1989, when it refused to ban executions of mentally retarded inmates.

Penry, who has the mind of a 6 1/2-year-old, thinks there are six hours in a day and has an IQ between 50 and 63, now faces a new sentencing trial. Whether his life ultimately will be spared, though, depends on what the Supreme Court does next.

This particular decision will have little effect on most Death Row inmates who are considered mentally retarded. In setting aside the Penry death sentence for the second time, the court ruled that jurors received conflicting instructions about how to consider his impairment.

That decision sets the stage for a related case that the high court is expected to take up later this year, one that addresses the broader issue of whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute murderers who are mentally retarded.

Public sentiment seems to be moving toward exempting mentally retarded killers from death sentences, even in Texas and Florida, which lead the nation in carrying out executions. ...

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has stated he does not support such executions. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has until June 17 to decide whether to veto a bill that passed the state legislature last month. If he supports the bill, Texas will become the 15th state to ban executions of mentally retarded inmates among the 38 states that allow capital punishment.

Unfortunately, Perry has hinted he prefers to hold off on any ban until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

Perry should approve the bill now. ... If he allows the measure to become law, and the high court follows suit by declaring such executions cruel and unusual, he'll be regarded as a leader ahead of the curve. If the high court affirms the right to execute mentally retarded inmates, he'll still have firm ground to argue that Texas has decided execution of the mentally retarded is indeed unwarranted punishment.

This much is known about those who are mentally retarded. Many are eager to please authority figures, good or bad. They tend to be more willing to confess to crimes they did not commit.

They may not fully understand their Miranda rights, leading them to incriminate themselves more readily than would a person of normal adult intelligence. They are less capable of participating effectively in their own defense, or of fully understanding their punishment.

If these sound like the same arguments for why we do not execute 10-year-olds, it's because they are.



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