CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"At Last, the Supreme Court Turns to Mental Disability and the Death Penalty"

From The Atlantic. In part:

That it took the justices 11 years to reach this conclusion says as much about them as it does the lower court judges, prosecutors, and other officials who have doggedly sought since 2002 to execute men the Constitution says it would be "cruel and unusual punishment" to execute. Truth is, the problem with theAtkins' compromise was evident on the day it was announced. States can't kill the mentally retarded, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, but states can define who is mentally retarded. So, logically, states simply changed their definitions, or applied warped new logic to old definitions, to execute those whom they had wanted to execute in the first place.

Take Florida, for example, and the case of Freddy Lee Hall. Before Atkins, the Florida courts acknowledged that Hall was retarded—that he had been retarded his whole life—but state judges ordered him executed anyway because there was no constitutional rule precluding it. Then, afterAtkins, when there was a constitutional rule precluding the execution of the mentally retarded, Florida ginned up a way to conclude that Hall wasn't mentally retarded after all—or at least not mentally retarded enough to spare him from execution. Here, exalting form over function to the bitter end, is Florida's brief asking the justices in Washington not to hear Hall's appeal.

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