Supreme Court bars executing mentally retarded
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 Thursday that executions of mentally retarded criminals are "cruel and unusual punishment," violating the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
The ruling is a victory for opponents of the death penalty, and spares the life of convicted killer Daryl Renard Atkins, who was scheduled to be executed in Virginia.
Atkins was convicted of shooting an Air Force enlisted man for beer money in 1996. Atkins' lawyers say he has an IQ of 59 and has never lived on his own or held a job.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion which was joined by Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
"We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty," the Court said.
The ruling doesn't address the constitutionality of capital punishment in general, and marked a reversal for the high court.
The majority cited a growing national consensus on the issue since the high court ruled in 1989 that such executions may be unacceptable. In the past 13 years the number of states that do not allow the execution of mentally retarded death row prisoners has grown from two to 18.
"It is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it," Stevens wrote.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at what he called "the 47 percent consensus." He said the 18 states represent less than half of the 38 states that permit capital punishment in any case.
"If one is to say as the court does today that ALL executions of the mentally retarded are so morally repugnant as to violate our national standards of decency, surely the consensus it points to must be one that has set its righteous face against ALL such executions," Scalia wrote.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia in dissenting.
According to a report by The Associated Press, the three dissenting justices, the court's most conservative members, telegraphed their views earlier this month, when they complained bitterly about reprieves the court majority had granted to two Texas inmates who claim they are retarded.
The most immediate effect of the ruling will be in the 20 states that allowed execution of the retarded up to now. Presumably, dozens or perhaps hundreds of inmates in those states will now argue that they are retarded, and that their sentences should be converted to life in prison.
In the future, the ruling will mean that people arrested for a killing will not face a potential death sentence if they can show they are retarded, generally defined as having an IQ of 70 or lower, the AP reported.
The case is Atkins v. Virginia, 01-8452
Eight cases remain on its docket for this term.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the court will sit again Monday, but gave no indication if all eight outstanding rulings will be issued then. If they are not, he will set a second session, most likely later next week.
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