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Supreme Court Rules Execution of Mentally Retarded Unconstitutional

Aired June 20, 2002 - 10:25   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are just now getting some breaking news here at the CNN Center here in Atlanta. We are just learning that -- from Washington now, a major ruling coming down from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has just ruled, moments ago, that executing the mentally retarded is unconstitutional. Now this is a ruling that is going to have far-ranging implications across the country. On various death rows, there are a number of people who have been pleading such a case.

Our Bob Franken is there inside the courtroom right now. He's on his way out, and as soon as we can get him miked up, we'll have him with us to give us a full report on this ruling. But as we just learned moments ago, the supreme court has just ruled that executions of the mentally retarded is unconstitutional. Stay with us, we'll have our Bob Franken in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARRIS: And we are back with this breaking development. Word that we're getting from the Supreme Court, a ruling coming down just moments ago from the Supreme Court saying that the execution of mentally retarded inmates is unconstitutional.

Let's check in now with our Bob Franken who is standing by there at the Supreme Court this morning -- Bob?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Leon. The justices have ruled 6-3 that executing the mentally retarded -- in this case, an inmate by the name of Daryl Atkins, convicted of murder in Virginia -- is cruel and unusual punishment, a violence of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

May I read, please, from the verdict which was delivered by Justice Stevens. "Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried when they commit crimes. Because of their disabilities in 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."

So, it is a major step in the body of capital punishment law that executing the mentally retarded is a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN (voice-over): Once again, the Supreme Court has contemplated another of the endless questions that one would expect to accompany the ultimate punishment, capital punishment. Is it the cruel and unusual punishment banned by the Constitution to execute the mentally retarded? The main question before the court, is there a national consensus?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't like how it was going down any more (ph).

FRANKEN: Daryl Atkins was sentenced to death for a 1996 robbery- murder. His IQ tests at 59, mentally between 9 and 12 years old. No state executes children between 9 and 12 years old. Eighteen states prohibit capital punishment for retarded adults.

DIANE CLEMENTS, VICTIMS' RIGHTS ACTIVIST: If you look at each of these states and the laws that they have passed, there still is not a consensus because they are all over the chart in how they determine mental retardation.

RICHARD DIETER, DEATH PENALTY INFORMATION CENTER: I don't think the Supreme Court ever wants to wait until we have, you know, 50 states saying one thing before it says that a punishment has become cruel and unusual.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FRANKEN: Now, the Supreme Court relied in its brief that was just filed, and its opinion that was just filed, the view that a legislative consensus that was sufficient enough has made this a ruling that would call it cruel and unusual punishment if, in fact, Daryl Atkins, or the mentally retarded prisoner, was executed.

Now this was a 6-3 ruling. Those who dissented, Leon, were the ones who we usually expect to dissent in these cases, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia -- Leon.

HARRIS: Bob, any idea how many may be on death rows across the country that may actually be mentally retarded at this particular moment?

FRANKEN: At this particular time, there are no statistics about that, but some of the other statistics that are worth noting is the fact that nobody has ever executed somebody in the age range, the actual age range, of the intellectual range that Daryl Atkins, the inmate in Virginia was executed.

So, there is no figure right now on how many are awaiting this decision. There was a Texas case that was put on hold until this could be figured out. It would seem now that the same rules would apply on that one that apply here.

HARRIS: All right. Bob Franken, there on the steps of the Supreme Court there, with this alarming -- actually rather important ruling coming down this morning, saying that the execution of the mentally retarded is unconstitutional.

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