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The death penalty is excessive punishment for a mentally retarded criminal and the U.S. Constitution places a substantive restriction on a state's power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.
A defendant was convicted in a Virginia trial court on charges of abduction, armed robbery, and capital murder that arose out of a 1996 incident. At a second capital sentencing hearing--after an appellate ruling that the first hearing had used a misleading verdict form--the defense presented testimony by a forensic psychologist who said that the defendant was mildly mentally retarded, with an IQ of 59, while a prosecution expert witness expressed the view that the defendant was of at least average intelligence. A jury again sentenced the defendant to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed. On certiorari, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded.
Does capital punishment of a mentally retarded individual constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
In both penalty phases, the defense relied on the conclusion of a forensic psychologist that the defendant was mildly mentally retarded. The Court noted that the practice of executing mentally retarded criminals had become truly unusual, and concluded that a national consensus had developed against it. Construing and applying the Eighth Amendment in the light of evolving standards of decency, the Court concluded that such punishment was excessive and that the U.S. Constitution places a substantive restriction on a state's power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender. The Court reasoned that the deficiencies of mentally retarded criminals do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but they do diminish their personal culpability. Mentally retarded defendants in the aggregate face a special risk of wrongful execution. The Court noted that there was more disagreement about how to determine which offenders are in fact retarded than over whether or not the death penalty is appropriate for them. The Court stated that it would leave to the states the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon its execution of sentences.