Human Rights Watch urged the federal government to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a constitutional ban on the execution of offenders with mental retardation.

According to Human Rights Watch, the United States is the only country known to execute mentally retarded offenders and whose jurisprudence expressly permits such executions. Of the 38 death penalty states, 23 permit such executions. In March, Human Rights Watch published "Beyond Reason: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation," a report documenting numerous examples of offenders with significant cognitive disabilities who have been sentenced to death.

"Executing the mentally retarded is senseless cruelty," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel at Human Rights Watch and author of Beyond Reason. "A constitutional ruling is needed to ban this barbaric practice nationwide."

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that the execution of mentally retarded offenders was not prohibited by the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court held there was no national consensus against such executions, as evidenced by the fact that only two states had legislatively prohibited them.

Since then, the number of states with legislative prohibitions has grown to 15 in addition to the federal government and public opinion polls consistently reveal a preponderance of Americans - including those who support the death penalty - believe it is wrong to execute offenders who have mental retardation. In March the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of Ernest McCarver, a man with the mind of a ten-year-old on North Carolina's death row who has asked the Court to reconsider its 1989 decision.

Beyond Reason is available on-line at