Mental retardation is a disability characterized by:
- Significant limitations in intellectual functioning
- Significant limitations in adaptive behaviour as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills
- Origination before the age of 18
(American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) 2002 Definition)
The AAMR definition of mental retardation was referenced in the landmark US Supreme Court decision in Atkins v Virginia prohibiting the execution of offenders with mental retardation.
It should however, be noted that co-existence of all three elements is not necessary for a diagnosis of mental retardation.
For more information on mental retardation in general please click here for the AAMR website.
For an AAMR fact sheet on the 2002 definition of mental retardation, please click here.
In Penry v. Lynaugh in 1989 ( 492 US 584), the US Supreme Court held that the execution of persons with mental retardation was not in violation of the Eight Amendment, instead mental retardation would be seen as a mitigating factor. In 2002, the Supreme Court again visited the issue of capital punishment and mental retardation, this time the Court held in Atkins v. Virginia (For summary and implications of the Atkins decision click here) that the execution of persons with mental retardation was in fact unconstitutional. This landmark ruling reflects a growing recognition and consensus that those with mental retardation simply do not possess the requisite degree of culpability and consequently, a sentence of death is contrary to the principle of proportionality. A person with mental retardation cannot fully appreciate the consequence of their actions or comprehend the punishment that awaits them. Often men and women with mental retardation lack the capacity to understand abstract concepts including those of death, waiving of rights, particularly in regard to Miranda, and the right against self-incrimination, more commonly known as the right to silence. The implications of this permeate every aspect of their participation within the criminal justice procedure to the effect that they lack the capacity to fully assist counsel in their own defense.
The Atkins v. Virginia ruling ostensibly prevents the execution of those persons with mental retardation. However upon closer scrutiny the decision has profound limitations; Inherent within this decision are a number of problems, one of the most significant lies in the determination of the person as mentally retarded. Whilst stating that such executions are unconstitutional, the Court did not expound upon the definition of mental retardation. Instead the Court left this decision to the individual states and thus in the vast majority of cases the jury to decide.
The case of John Paul Penry exemplifies the limitations of this decision. Just two weeks after the decision in Atkins, John Paul Penry was sentenced to death for the third time despite being consistently assessed from the age of six as having mental retardation and an IQ of 50-63. The Texan judge and jury concluded that Penry was not learning disabled. The concept of mental retardation is both illusory and elusive: juries have proven to be reluctant to accept that the accused has mental retardation, instead believing it to be easily faked. Indeed, despite clear evidence to the contrary a juror in Penry's re-sentencing hearing stated that to him it was obvious Penry was faking his mental retardation.
This belief is further echoed within the dissent of Justice Scalia in Atkins who stated that mental retardation could be "feigned," and the enhanced risk of wrongful execution was "laughable."
The exact number of people with mental retardation facing death sentences or languishing on death row is unknown due to the very nature of the disability: Identifying and qualifying mental retardation is exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons. Whilst the decision in Atkins is welcome, the problems associated with the interaction of law and mental disabilities have not yet been resolved.