At What Point is Someone “Fit to Be Executed?”

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.


Mina Neugass
Mina Neugass4 years ago

Intentional taking of a life should be punished to the full extent of the law (as mentioned above very clearly and concisely). Too many monsters in action are sitting on death row and being taken care of by the use of taxes of hard working people and living. The key word is living. Those who kill should not be allowed to live. Period; end of story. Where they is no doubt whatsoever. It is heinous with or without torture (although that should be the perp gets the same in some fashion). Putting killer to sleep is beyond comprehension. They need to be wide awake and see it coming like their victims. Do I sound harsh, not really. Because if they had some fear in them, perhaps there would be less killings. I realize there are some that no deterrent would matter, but I still feel the numbers would go down. Right now, they know the changes of them being killed are minimal, at best, and, at worst, if they are killed, it will be painless.

Klara Ertl
Klára Ertl4 years ago

I recently had to read an article for my psychology study about the Flynn effect and its implications for the execution of mentally retarded convicts. This is another thing that makes the definition of retardation hard, because the Flynn effect means the population worldwide gains, on average, 0.3 IQ points per year across all IQ tests. And so, if a mentally disabled person takes a test with norms that date 20 years back (which is not rare, because IQ tests like the WAIS are updated and renormed only every 20-30 years or so), the result might say he is not mentally disabled, while compared to the general population of today, he actually is.

Cheryl H.
Cheryl H4 years ago

There are certain cases, when the history of the defendant and the nature of their crimes make it clear they cannot be successfully rehabilitated and released back into the general public, when the death penalty is appropriate. Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, and Charles Manson are three people who come to mind as falling into that category. In that context, I have a hard time seeing someone who's mentally retarded and incapable of fully comprehending the crime they committed as deserving anything other than being sentenced to a facility where they can receive therapy and treatment, and if it's decided they've reached a point where they're not a danger to those around them, they can be released.

Just off the top of my head, it seems like the federal government setting a standard of mental competency to be used by states when deciding death penalty cases would be a good thing to have, so that all defendants are held to the same standard, there's no question about what 'mentally retarded' or 'mentally incapacitated' is, or any of the other questions/issues that have made things so muddy and, IMHO, allowed states to get away with murder for far too long.

Lynn C.
Lynn C4 years ago


B J.
BJ J4 years ago

Bless their little pea-picking hearts, give them the chance to commit more heinous crimes and blame the victims.

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman4 years ago

I find it interesting that the Roman Catholic Church is officially against capital punishment but seems to put most of its efforts into opposing birth control and abortion.

Julie D.
Julie D4 years ago

they perpetrated on their innocent victims. I think that is more than fair, and will always support it.

Julie D.
Julie D4 years ago

In the case of someone who is severely developmentally disabled, the death penalty is not appropriate. However such an individual must remain incarcerated for life with no hope of parole as they are a danger to society by the very nature of the fact they they are incapable of understanding what they are doing and must be prevented from doing it again, and as rehabilitation is not possible for such people. However those who are in complete possession of their mental faculties but who simply enjoy being cruel and evil and who have committed unspeakably horrible crimes of rape torture and murder of innocent victims with full knowledge of what they were doing knowing full well just like the rest of us that the penalty for for their crimes would be death if they were caught and yet decided to commit those crimes anyway, showing no compassion or pity or mercy for their victims, and for whom irrefutable evidence has been obtained, through DNA, film, or reliable eyewitnesses, then yes the death penalty is appropriate for them as well as for any accomplices they may have had in the execution of their crimes, and for those who have hired others to murder people for money. They forfeited their right to life when they chose to take the life of an innocent victim, it is just that simple. They are then given the same consideration for their right to live that they gave their victims, none, and their deaths will be far more merciful by euthanasia than the hideous and gruesome deaths th

Linda McKellar
Past Member 4 years ago

RON - Thinking someone will "stand before god" to be judged is great if you believe in fairy tales but I don't. Evil must be condemned. Remember the evil murders committed by religions, in fact by the upper echelons of religions, in the past? They murdered others just because they didn't believe the same things...Inquisitions, Crusades, religious wars. In a religious war, soldiers commit murders in the name of their particular god & yet both sides claim god to be on their side. That is impossible but used as justification. It is still murder. It continues in places like the Middle East, Africa &, come to think about it, just about everywhere on the planet. If you don't want to execute someone, good for you...don't!
LEAH, as for the death penalty equalling the crime of the perpetrator - FALSE. The criminal commits murders in horrible ways & upon innocents. The death penalty is fast & basically painless. Should it be so nice if their victims died a comparable death!!!!

Theresa K.
Theresa K4 years ago

Mark C - Greek, not Catholic. Anyhow, you pretty much got it right in that Dante paragraph. I suspect sarcasm, but it's right all the same. I am behind rehab for most people, because it can work and I don't want to see someone hurt needlessly. But, the kind of people I think are beyond rehab are people who do absolutely horrible things, like that example I gave. I think the DP should be a last resort that is rarely used, but I think it should always be an option for those once in a blue moon, crazy-and-evil-as-Hitler types.