November 9, 2000

The United States is almost alone in the world in not having abandoned the barbaric practice of executing people with mental retardation. At least 34 men known to have been mentally retarded have been executed since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. Some experts estimate that as many as 10 percent of the 3,000 men and women on the nation's Death Row have mental retardation.

The United States is almost alone in the world in not having abandoned the barbaric practice of executing people with mental retardation. At least 34 men known to have been mentally retarded have been executed since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. Some experts estimate that as many as 10 percent of the 3,000 men and women on the nation's Death Row have mental retardation.

Many of the mentally retarded on Death Row have committed terrible murders. Intelligence is not a prerequisite for violence. But mentally retarded people are incapable of fully comprehending either the nature of their crimes or the nature of their punishment. They may be guilty, but their punishment should reflect their diminished culpability.

If the death penalty is to be used at all, it should be imposed only on the most blameworthy offenders. By virtue of their mental impairment the mentally retarded can never meet that standard. Like children, they are incapable of calculated, mature evil.

In 1989, a sharply divided Supreme Court reviewing Penry's case concluded that the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment did not preclude execution of the mentally retarded. It ruled there was insufficient evidence that the national "standard of decency" had evolved far enough to reject such executions.

Sadly, the standard of decency of almost every other country has evolved beyond that of the U.S. when it comes to the death penalty. There has been progress though: the federal government and twelve states now specifically exempt the retarded from capital punishment. Efforts are underway in several other states to ban the execution of the retarded. No one argues the mentally retarded should be excused entirely from criminal responsibility. But life imprisonment is sufficient to express society's outrage and grief at horrible crimes, to hold offenders accountable, and to protect society from further violence. It is time the U.S. joins the world in recognizing the senseless cruelty of executing anyone with the mind of a child.