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Facts about capital punishment

Part 4: Executing persons who are
mentally impaired. Abolition drives

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All sides to these issues are described.


bullet "When a society starts killing its children, something is wrong, something is deadly wrong."  Joseph Green Brown, death row survivor, 1998-MAY.

bullet "Evidence of innocence is irrelevant" Mary Sue Terry, former Attorney General of Virginia, replying to an appeal to introduce new evidence indicating innocence of a prisoner sentenced to death.

Executions of mentally impaired persons - Overview:

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights stated that:

"In many, but not all, states the defendant cannot be held responsible if he reacted to an 'irresistible impulse' or is incapable of acting responsibly by reason of mental or emotional disability. Many people with mental disabilities, however, are not legally insane. Some persons with mental disabilities have been found legally capable of resisting impulses and acting responsibly." 2

Status prior to 2002-JUN-20:

bullet12 states and the District of Columbia did not impose the death penalty.

bullet 18 states and the federal government in the U.S. do execute prisoners, but prohibited persons who are mentally ill or mentally disadvantaged to be sentenced to death.

bullet The remaining 20 states that allowed the execution of such people. They are the only democratic jurisdictions in the world to do so. A very few other countries, all of which are dictatorships and/or theocracies, allow this practice.

Status as of 2002-JUN-20:

bullet The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the execution of mentally impaired people is unconstitutional.

Executions of mentally impaired persons - Examples:

Between 1976 and 2000-NOV, at least 35 mentally disadvantaged individuals were executed in the U.S.; six of them were in Texas jails. Some of the most recent executions of mentally retarded inmates ocurred in late 2000: 3

bulletTony Chambers, a black man  who has been convicted of raping and murdering an 11 year-old girl in 1990. Although DNA evidence has proven that he is not the perpetrator, he confessed to the crime and will probably be executed shortly. The only thing remarkable about the case is that it took police 11 hours to extract a confession from Tony. His IQ is in the 50's and he has a mental age of six. (Normal intelligence is a 100) It should have taken only a few hours for a competent police force to extract a confession of any crime from murder to bank robbery from a person with an IQ at that level.


Johnny Penry, a white man, who was convicted of murdering a 20-year old woman in 1979.

"He has been mentally retarded since childhood, possibly as the result of organic brain damage. He has the mind of a seven year old, with an I.Q. somewhere between 50 and 63. Like a child, he has grave difficulties in communication, learning, foresight, logic, attention, memory and understanding consequences. He is limited in his ability to learn from experience, to control his impulses, to understand causality. Penry's development was also dramatically affected by the vicious, relentless beatings and abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his mother, a woman who even made her son eat his own feces."

This is one of Johnny Penry's recent drawings:

Some experts estimate that as many as 15 percent of the 3,000 men and women on the nation's Death Row suffer from mental retardation.

Many observers feel that although the crimes of mentally impaired individuals are equally as serious as those committed by persons of normal intelligence, that the former should be treated more leniently because "they are incapable of fully comprehending either the nature of their crimes or the nature of their punishment."

Jamie Fellner is an Associate Counsel  at Human Rights Watch and an author of the fifty-page report, "Beyond Reason: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation." Fellner said:

"Executing adults with the minds of children is nothing short of barbaric...Polls show most supporters of the death penalty agree. It is time for legislators to outlaw this senseless cruelty." 4,5

According to Human Rights Watch:

"...mentally retarded people are incapable of understanding - much less protecting - their constitutional rights; how their characteristic suggestibility and willingness to please leads them to confess - even falsely - to capital crimes; and how they are unable to understand the legal proceedings against them and assist in their own defense." 4,6

Executions of mentally impaired persons - Recent court and legislative activity:

The U.S. supreme court ruled in 1989 that execution of individuals with mental retardation was acceptable. They:

"... concluded that the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment did not preclude execution of the mentally retarded. It ruled there was insufficient evidence that the national 'standard of decency' had evolved far enough to reject such executions."  4

Only two states had banned the practice at the time. 

By the end of the 20th century, the executions of mentally impaired offenders was prohibited by 18 U.S. states and by the Federal Government. Some other states were considering legislation to follow suit: AZ, FL, MO, NV, OK, TX.

  • Texas state Senator Rodney Ellis unsuccessfully introduced a bill to prohibit execution of mentally retarded criminals in Texas. Governor George W. Bush did not support the legislation.

  • Governor Mike Easley of North Carolina signed a bill forbidding execution of mentally retarded persons on 2001-AUG-4.

On 2002-JUN-20, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that the execution of mentally retarded murderers is cruel and unusual punishment and is thus unconstitutional under the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority report. He stated that mentally retarded individuals should still be tried and punished when they:

"meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility. Because of their disabilities in the areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct."

Amnesty International commented:

"The Atkins ruling overturned a 1989 decision, Penry v. Lynaugh, by finding that 'standards of decency' in the USA had evolved in the intervening years to the point at which a 'national consensus' had emerged against such executions ? primarily reflected in state-level legislation banning the execution of the mentally retarded. From an international human rights perspective, an encouraging footnote attached to the Atkins opinion acknowledged that 'within the world community, the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by mentally retarded offenders is overwhelmingly disapproved'." 1

The court voted 6 to 3 in the case of Daryl Atkins who was found guilty of shooting an Air Force enlisted man for beer money in 1996. According to his lawyers, he has an IQ of 59 and had never lived on his own or held a job.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas voted against the ruling.

Dianna rust-Tierney, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's capital punishment project said:

"The decision is consistent with increased concern about application of the death penalty. It reflects a true consensus that the death penalty should be reserved for the most culpable and a recognition that people with mental retardation do not fit that category."

According to one news report:

"The high court's most conservative members, all confirmed supporters of capital punishment, filed two overlapping and unusually bitter dissents. They accused the majority of substituting personal views for the law and of relying too heavily on public opinion." 7

The Supreme Court's ruling did not precisely establish how mental retardation is to be defined. It has traditionally been defined as having an IQ of 70 or lower. This wiggle room might give certain states the ability to continue executing individuals that would be protected by the Court's ruling in other states.


This state has an unusually large number of executions, rivaling the number of executions performed by some of those larger countries which still have the death penalty on their books. This meets with the enthusiastic support of most Texans.

Ramsey Clark, the U.S. Attorney General for 1967 to 1969 under Lyndon Johnson's administration, commented in 2003:

"President George W. Bush presided over the execution of 152 people during his five plus years as governor of Texas -- far more than any other U.S. governor since World War II and more than one-third of all execution in the United States during his terms as governor. Of those executions:

  • All were poor,
  • 50 were African Americans,
  • 21 were Hispanic, and
  • Two were women,

Included were teenagers at the time of their offence, mentally retarded persons, and foreign nationals executed in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations." 8

International abolition efforts: Moratorium 2000:

bullet 1998-DEC-25: Pope John Paul II called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. He later repeated this call during visits to the U.S. and Mexico.

bullet 1999-SPRING: During 1999-SPRING, the United Nations' Commission for Human Rights held a meeting at Geneva, Switzerland. They discussed calling for a world-wide abolition of the death penalty. They failed. However, they were able to obtain a consensus for a moratorium that might eventually lead to an abolition.

bullet 2000-APR: "Moratorium 2000" is a petition being circulated around the world, calling for a cessation on the use of the death penalty. As of 2000-APR, almost 2 million people have signed the petition. Sr. Helen Prejean leads the petition drive in the U.S. She is a Roman Catholic nun, and author of the book Dead Man Walking. her goal was to deliver one million American signatures to the United Nations on Human Rights Day, 2000-DEC-10. She has said: "In a protracted war, the first step towards peace is a cease-fire. Peace always comes in steps and the first step is to cease and desist from killing which, of course, is a moratorium."

bullet 2010-JUL: According to the Community of Sant' Egidio, the group that initiated the Moratorium 2000. 5.4 million signatures have been collected in support of the world moratorium of executions. 8

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The execution of mentally ill offenders," Amnesty International, at:
  2. "Question of the death penalty," U.N. Commission on Human Rights, at:
  3. Jamie Fellner, "Should we execute killers with the mind of a child?," Chicago Tribune, at:
  4. "U.S. execution of mentally retarded condemned. State legislatures urged to act," Human Rights Watch, 2001-MAR-20.
  5. "Beyond Reason: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation," Human Rights Watch report, is at:
  6. "The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation" (Human Rights Watch essay at:
  7. Anne Gearan, "Executing retarded is barred," Associated Press, 2002-JUN-21.
  8. Ramsey Clark, "The tragedy of war as an end in itself," The Toronto Star, 2003-MAR-8, Page A9.
  9. "No to the death penalty," Community of Sant' Egidio, 2010-JUL-22, at:

Navigation: Home page > "Hot" religious topics > Death Penalty > this essay

Copyright © 1995 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1995-JUN-8
Last updated 2010-JUL-23

Author: Bruce A Robinson
Hyperlinks checked: 2006-JAN-29
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