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US Supreme Court Rules Execution of Mentally Retarded Convicts Unconstitutional - 2002-06-20

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a major ruling on capital punishment Thursday. By a vote of six to three, the high court banned the execution of mentally retarded killers. We get details now from National correspondent Jim Malone.

Six of the nine Supreme Court justices agreed that executing mentally retarded murderers violates the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said a national consensus has emerged in recent years against executing the mentally retarded.

Eighteen of the 38 states that allow capital punishment have banned executions of the retarded. Another 12 states have banned capital punishment altogether. When the Supreme Court last ruled on this issue in 1989, only two states prohibited executing retarded killers.

Brenda Bowser is with the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that opposes capital punishment. "Thirty states have either banned the death penalty altogether or stopped the execution of those with mental retardation," she said, "So there is no doubt that there is now a national consensus on this issue."

Three of the high court's more conservative justices dissented in the opinion, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He wrote that the court majority was, in his words, "seriously mistaken."

Legal experts predict the ruling will generate numerous appeals from criminals sentenced to death, who will now argue that they are retarded and that they should be sentenced to life in prison instead. That worries victims' rights advocates, like Dudley Sharp, a spokesman for the Houston-based group Justice for All.

"The Supreme Court has made a decision that will allow fully culpable capital murderers to escape a death penalty," Mr. Sharp commented, "and the bottom line will be that we will see a large number of new cases with unfounded claims of mental retardation coming off of death row."

The high court issued it's ruling based on the case of a Virginia man, Daryl Atkins. Atkins was convicted of murder, but his attorneys argued that his life should be spared because he has an IQ (intelligence quotient) of only 59. An average IQ is about 100, and people with IQ's of 70 or below are generally considered mentally retarded.