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'Cruel and unusual' punishment -- executing people with retardation
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Mar. 27, 2001 -- Monday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of convicted murderer Ernest Paul McCarver of North Carolina means that the Court will reopen the issue as to whether executing people with mental retardation who have been convicted of murder constitutes unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment."

On March 1, the Court temporarily halted McCarver's execution just hours before his scheduled 2 a.m. death. McCarver was convicted in the 1987 stabbing death of coworker Woodrow Hartley, 71.

McCarver's supporters say that he has the "functioning level of a 10-year-old." A recent IQ test gave McCarver a score of 67, which is below the cut-off of 70 that many experts use for designating mental retardation. He had scored between 70 and 80 on an earlier test.

"The court had apparently settled the issue of executing mentally retarded offenders in 1989, when it decided by a 5 to 4 vote that the practice did not necessarily violate the Constitution's ban on 'cruel and unusual' punishment," writes Washington Post Supreme Court reporter Charles Lane in a story in today's paper (online at

Lane writes that "The court's move took death penalty opponents by surprise" but that changes in state law may have been behind the Court's decision to revisit the issue. Today, "12 of the 37 states that allow the death penalty have banned executions of mentally retarded people," Lane wrote. "When combined with the 13 states that do not permit capital punishment, half the states now forbid executions of the mentally retarded."

Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, at least thirty-five people with mental retardation have been executed in the United States, says Human Rights Watch. "The exact number of people with this disability who are on death row awaiting execution is not known; experts believe there may be two or three hundred." Specific information on these 35 is available at Experts say that trials of people with low IQs are often bungled; that police often coerce suspects into confessing crimes they did not commit; that evidence tying these people directly to the crimes they have allegedly committed is often sketchy or missing altogether.

"Should a civilized society levy its most extreme punishment against someone who cannot fully understand it?" said the Dallas Morning News in a 1998 editorial. "Against someone who could not help his own lawyers defend him? Against someone who may have confessed to "help out" the police, not realizing he's just helped himself to the death chamber?"

More background on this issue is available from:

The Death Penalty Information Center:

Human Rights Watch:

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