Monday, October 31, 2011

Pennsylvania Finally Gets Around to Addressing the Death Penalty and Mental Retardation

Nine years after Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), Pennsylvania is finally getting around to establishing a set of guidelines for determining if a defendant facing the death penalty is mentally retarded.

According to National Public Radio (NPR), in 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that applying the death penalty to someone with a mental retardation is unconstitutional, and called on states to craft their own guidelines on how to implement the decision.

In Atkins, the Supreme Court ruled that the mentally retarded are not able to communicate with the same sophistication as the average offender, as a result there is a greater likelihood that their deficiency in communicative ability will be interpreted by juries as a lack of remorse for their crimes. The mentally retarded typically make poor witnesses, being more prone to suggestion and willing to "confess" in order to placate or please their questioner.

In light of the "evolving standards of decency" that the Eighth Amendment demands the Court concluded that executing the mentally retarded with be cruel and unusual punishment.

Pennsylvania is finally getting around to the issue. The state legislature has considered similar measures in the House or Senate a number of times over the years.

This month the state Senate approved a bill that allows lawyers for a defendant in a capital case to request a hearing before the trial to determine if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty. The burden of proof would be on the defendant. If the judge rules in favor of the defendant, the case would move forward as a non-capital trial. In the case of a defendant who has already been sentenced to death, a similar procedure would take place.

David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law explained that the lag time between the high court ruling and state action is not a-typical.

As long as the state is not imposing the death penalty on anyone that might qualify as mentally disabled, [the lack of guidelines] isn’t a problem. But as soon as they get close to doing something like that, it becomes a problem,” Harris told NPR.

Because the state executes so few people, Harris calls the death penalty more symbolic rather than an actual issue. Nonetheless, he says a state must have clear laws that follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions.

Because if it doesn’t, it sets itself up for endless appeals and trips through the legal system which are just unnecessary and incredibly expensive,” Harris told NPR.

Pennsylvania has executed three people since 1976.  All three volunteered to be executed  There are currently 208 inmates on death row.

To read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment