NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Executing the Mentally Retarded

July 1, 2003

On June 20 of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that execution of the mentally retarded would be unconstitutional. That decision was much more sweeping than many observers had anticipated.

  • Previously, in 1989, the justices had ruled that while evidence of a defendant's mental retardation ought to be presented as a mitigating factor at sentencing, it did not render him or her ineligible for the death penalty.
  • In the period between the two decisions, another 16 states had joined the original two that barred the execution of the mentally retarded in the late 1980s -- a signal that public opinion was clearly shifting.
  • Establishing mental retardation requires taking into account IQ scores, documenting the condition's onset before age 18 -- and assessing how the individual manages day-to-day, at work, at home, and in the community.
  • The recent decision has not opened the floodgates to vast numbers of new cases claiming mental retardation as a legal defense, experts report.

But it has reopened cases and held out the possibility that a good number of people scheduled to die will spend the rest of their lives in prison instead. Some anti-capital-punishment groups estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the 3,500 inmates on death row may be mentally retarded and eligible for protection under the new standard.

Source: Margaret Talbot, "The Executioner's I.Q. Test," New York Times Magazine, June 29, 2003.


Browse more articles on Government Issues