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The Houston Chronicle asks whether Texas executed an innocent man


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Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty

On June 20, 2002 the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling ending the execution of those with mental retardation. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment to execute Death Row inmates with mental retardation. The decision reflects the national consensus which has formed on this issue and influenced a 2005 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the execution of juvenile offenders, Roeper v. Simmons.

Previously, in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on in a 5-4 decision, Penry v. Lynaugh, that executing persons with mental retardation was not a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Instead, they ruled that mental retardation should instead be a mitigating factor to be considered by the jury during sentencing. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that a “national consensus” had not developed against executing those with mental retardation. Only two states, Maryland and Georgia, prohibited such executions at the time. Between the Penry and Atkins decisions, 16 additional states enacted laws prohibiting the execution of the mentally retarded. The federal death penalty statute also forbids such executions.

The decision in Atkins has had a profound impact on many states including Texas. Nine hours before the scheduled execution of Texas Death Row inmate Robert Charles Ladd in 2003, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed the execution to allow Ladd’s attorneys enough time to file an appeal in a lower court raising questions about their client’s IQ. Ladd’s attorneys claim that a childhood test put Ladd’s IQ at 67. A person with an IQ of 70 or lower is generally considered to have mental retardation and would be ineligible for execution under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. Robert Charles Ladd is still on Death Row in Texas.




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