Supreme Court Does The Right Thing… 13 Years Later
By: Helen Redmond
Abolitionists won a major victory in the struggle to end the death penalty when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its former ruling and declared that executing the mentally retarded was a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. We welcome this ruling and see it as a step toward ending the death penalty.
The court ruled in the case of Daryl Atkins v. Virginia. Aktins was reported to have an IQ of 59. The threshold measure for mental retardation is usually an IQ of 70 or below. The ruling means that death sentences for as many as 300 retarded death row inmates in 20 states will be commuted to life. Mental heath experts have estimated that about 10 percent of the 3,700 prisoners on death row across the country are mentally retarded.
But this is also a bittersweet victory for some. “It came two years too late,” said Yolanda Cruz, whose son Oliver Cruz was executed in Texas in 2000. Her son had an IQ of 64. But she added, “In a way, I’m happy. I’m happy there’s going to be mothers who won’t go through what I went through. People are changing, people are thinking differently about the issue.”
The United States, a country that touts itself as a leader in human rights around the world, stood virtually alone in killing the mentally retarded. This barbaric practice was routinely criticized by the international community. Executing prisoners with significant cognitive impairments has always been cruel and unusual. It is about retribution and revenge against the most vulnerable in society.
As Larry Marshall, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, said of the decision, “It didn’t start to be cruel and unusual today, and yet we have killed scores of people.”
Who are the mentally retarded who were put to death? One of them was Louis Mata. Mata was born with brain damage. He was one of 15 siblings, and he often went hungry and was viciously beaten by his alcoholic father when he was growing up. At age six, Louis suffered a fractured skull. His impoverished family did not seek medical treatment for him. His IQ was measured at 63, but during the sentencing hearing of his trial, his lawyer didn’t present evidence of Mata’s mental retardation or abusive childhood. He was executed in 1996.
Barry Lee Fairchild had an IQ that measured as low as 60. At his clemency hearing, he fell asleep. He was executed in 1995.
Morris Mason had so little conception of his death that on his way to the death chamber, he asked a visitor to tell a fellow inmate, “When I get back, I’m gonna show him I can play basketball as good as he can.”
The court’s landmark ruling–which comes 13 years after a previous ruling that executing the mentally retarded did not violate the Constitution–is another defining moment in the struggle to end the death penalty. Justice John Paul Stevens noted in the decision that there was a “consistency in the direction of change.”
In 1989, only two states banned the execution of the mentally retarded–that number had grown to 18 by the time of the Supreme Court decision. And no state had gone in the other direction and lifted the ban.
Key to these changes has been grassroots activism. Anti-death penalty activists have consistently exposed the utter barbarity, racism, and arbitrariness of the death penalty. Our activist tactics have put pressure on politicians and state legislatures to pass anti-death penalty legislation–even when they didn’t want to. When the public learns the truth about the death penalty, support drops.
International pressure has played an important role, too. Fifteen countries of the European Union filed a brief on behalf of Daryl Atkins, and a group of senior American diplomats told the court that the practice of executing the retarded was out of step with much of the world and a source of friction between the U.S. and other countries.
The justices of the Supreme Court would like us to believe that their decisions aren’t swayed by grassroots activism. We know better, and their decision to ban the execution of the mentally retarded is proof.