While approximately 63% of Americans support the death penalty (when presented without an alternative like life in prison without the possibility of parole), the issue gets more sticky when it comes to executing prisoners with severe cognitive and intellectual disabilities, people who, in other words, might not understand what is happening and why. That’s considered cruel and unusual punishment, a practice specifically barred under the Constitution, and as of 2002 and Atkins v. Virginia, states with the death penalty are not allowed to execute people with developmental disabilities.
There’s a hitch, though. The ruling, which refers to “retardation” and “retarded” in lieu of more accurate and accepted terms, effectively leaves the determination of disability up to individual states. They get to evaluate prisoners and decide if they are intellectually and cognitively capable of undergoing execution, just as courts can determine whether people are fit to stand trial. The consequence of this ruling has been a series of state-by-state acrobatics as states attempt to blur the lines, fudge the facts and rush people to the execution chamber.
One of the more striking instances of this has occurred in Florida, where Freddy Lee Hall was deemed intellectually disabled by the courts, with evidence indicating he had been so throughout his life, including at the time of his crime. The court issued the death penalty in his case anyway, thanks to the fact that nothing barred it from doing so; and when Atkins v. Virginia was handed down, Florida re-evaluated him and miraculously found him cured of his intellectual disability and still able to be executed.
Hall feels this is unfair, and his appeal has finally reached the Supreme Court, which will be looking at Hall v. Florida sometime next year. The Court just ruled on Monday to accept the case, allowing Hall’s attorneys to bring arguments to court and providing an opportunity to review its prior precedent on execution and disability status. The end result, if it goes Hall’s way, may be a rethinking of the way situations like this one are handled, and it could result in setting a standard that would apply nationwide.
While the Supreme Court, under the guidance of the Constitution and rule of law, must respect states’ rights, it can address civil rights issues, and this is shaping up to be a civil rights issue. Individual states appear incapable of developing a reasonable and fair test of disability status, and have manipulated cases to create outcomes that suit their desires, suggesting that in the interest of protecting intellectually and cognitively disabled defendants and convicts, the Supreme Court may have to step in, just as it has in other civil rights cases.
By establishing a clear precedent and nationwide standard, the justices could ensure equal treatment in any state, and provide guidelines for states struggling with how to handle intellectually and cognitively disabled convicts. While they may have committed crimes, and may have stood trial for them, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in a fit state to face execution, now or ever, and it’s clear that alternatives need to be made available.
Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote in this case, and the conservative justice can be a bit of a wildcard. While his conservative nature and famed support for states’ rights could mean that he rules against Hall, he ruled with the majority in Atkins. He’s also known to be a supporter of the concept of “evolving decency” enshrined in the Constitution, according to Andrew Cohen at the Atlantic, and he, along with many of the rest of us, may be uneasy with the idea of executing someone with diminished capacity, whether or not he supports the death penalty as a whole.
Photo credit: MD Govpics.