The Death Penalty for Intellectually Disabled Persons (AKA: Mentally Retarded)
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court in Atkins v. Virginia ruled that execution of inmates who are intellectually disabled (mentally retarded) violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. However, after this decision, states were largely left to themselves to determine the standard for whether an individual is intellectually disabled or not.
Three years later in 2005, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court adopted the following standard to determine when a criminal defendant is intellectually disabled under Atkins:
A defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he is intellectually disabled as defined by either 1. the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM–IV), or 2. the American Association of Mental Retardation (AAMR), which is now known as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Difficulties (AAIDD).
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules on 8th Amendment Prohibition of Death Penalty for Intellectually Disabled Inmates (Commonwealth v. Bracey, June 2015)
In a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Commonwealth v. Bracey, the court held that the defendant had made a sufficient showing of intellectual disability, thereby upholding the trial court’s overturning the death penalty sentence. The Bracey case involved the murder of a police officer. After a jury trial, the defendant was found guilty and ultimately sentenced to death. There was no mitigation evidence presented at sentencing.
After subsequent appeals and PCRA petitions, the PCRA court finally held a hearing on the issue of whether the defendant was intellectually disabled pursuant to the Atkins case. The court examined evidence from medical/psychological experts as well as testimony from the defendant’s family members. Given the defendant’s history of a very low IQ, coupled with the witness testimony, the court found that the defendant was in fact intellectually disabled and therefore could not face the death penalty.
An Atkins issue of intellectual disability often requires expert evidence and witnesses such as family members, school teachers, etc. At sentencing, especially in capital (first degree murder) cases, it is often crucial to present evidence of mitigation. Evidence of any mental or intellectual disability certainly constitutes mitigation evidence, at the very least.
A Note About the Fate of Capital Murder Cases in Pennsylvania
Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf essentially declared a moratorium on all executions in this state, citing a 2011 special task force report ordered by the Pennsylvania legislature. To effectuate the moratorium, Wolf has granted multiple reprieves in the cases of inmates who have been sentenced to death. Wolf had to grant reprieves because the death penalty is allowed by statute. The governor has no legal power to overturn a statute. He can, however, grant reprieves. The state’s Attorney General and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office have filed court actions to stop Wolf. Hearings were held last month by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It’s unclear what the fate of the death penalty will be in Pennsylvania.
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