Supreme Court Could Bar Execution Of Mentally Retarded
by Marlene Martin
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to come out with its decision in June on whether the execution of the mentally retarded violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
In taking up this issue, the justices are reconsidering a shameful 1989 decision in which they upheld the practice of executing the mentally retarded by a 5-4 vote. Back then, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion that there was no “national consensus” against this practice.
But times have changed. In 1989, only two states had laws banning executions of the mentally retarded. Today, 18 states plus the federal government have such bans in place.
Since 1976, 35 retarded inmates have been executed. Experts think that as many as 10 percent of the 3,700 people on death row may be mentally retarded — defined as having an IQ lower than 70.
A question asked by Justice David Souter during arguments on the appeal of a Virginia prisoner earlier this year reveals the barbarism of this practice. If retarded people with a mental age of 5 could be executed, Souter asked, does that mean that 5-year-olds should be executed?
Yes, responded Virginia Assistant Attoney General Pamela Rumpz — as long as they “know the difference” between right and wrong.
What a monstrous statement to make in talking about the most vulnerable in society. Mentally retarded individuals are particularly susceptible to abuse and manipulation by the criminal justice system. Authority figures, like police, find them easy to manipulate.
A report by Human Rights Watch points out that innocent, mentally retarded people often confess to capital crimes simply because they want to give the “right” answer to police. Keep in mind that the tactics used by police can be difficult for a person with average intelligence to cope with, let alone someone who is retarded.
“Police in the United States are able to use virtually any method short of physical force to obtain a confession from a criminal suspect,” Human Rights Watch summarized. “They can lie, for instance, falsely claiming that they possess evidence they lack; they can shout angrily and make threats; they can wear a suspect down through bullying and prolonged interrogations.”
Robert Wayne Sawyer is an example of the human story behind these facts. In 1993, Sawyer was executed by the state of Louisiana, even though he was obviously mentally retarded. During one interview with a psychiatrist, when asked to define the term “evidence,” Sawyer said, “It’s what lawyers put on a yellow pad like the one you’re using.” When asked to define “reasonable doubt,” Robert pointed to a cigarette that had just been put out and said, “That smoke ain’t reasonable out, but when it stops, it’s reasonable out.”
The Supreme Court has the chance to right the wrong they perpetrated in 1989 — by banning the execution of the mentally retarded.
Why an innocent man “confessed”
The following is an excerpt from the interrogation of David Vasques, a mentally retarded man who was convicted of murder in 1984:
Detective 1: Did she tell you to tie her hands behind her back?
Vasquez: Ah, if she did, I did.
Detective 2: Whatcha use?
Vasquez: The ropes?
Detective 2: No, not the ropes. Whatcha use?
Vasquez: Only my belt.
Detective 2: No, not your belt… Remember being out in the sun room, the room that sits out to the back of the house? …and what did you cut down? To use?
Vasquez: That, uh, clothesline?
Detective 2: No, it wasn’t a clothesline, it was something like a clothesline. What was it? By the window? Think about the Venetian blinds, David. Remember cutting the Venetian blind cords?
Vasquez: Ah, it’s the same as rope?
Detective 2: Yeah.
Detective 1: Okay, now tell us how it went, David — tell us how you did it.
Vasquez: She told me to grab the knife, and, and, stab her, that’s all.
Detective 2: (voice raised) David, no, David.
Vasquez: If it did happen, and I did it, and my fingerprints were on it…
Detective 2: (slamming his hand on the table and yelling) You hung her!
Detective 2: You hung her!
Vasquez: Okay, so I hung her.
Because of this “confession,” David Vasquez spent five years in prison before he was pardoned.