St. Mary's Law Journal


David L. Rumley


This Comment will show there is no merit to the argument the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of capital punishment on all persons considered mentally retarded. This Comment begins with an overview of the historical treatment of mental disabilities, articulating the levels of mental deficiency required for exculpation of criminal responsibility. Next, this Comment discusses the characteristics of persons with mental retardation. This Comment will also discuss the recently enacted statutes’ use of I.Q. tests for determinations of mental retardation. In analyzing these statutes, it becomes apparent a person’s I.Q. should not be prima-facie proof of mental retardation, although state legislatures are suggesting otherwise. Additionally, this Comment will discuss the constitutionality of imposing the death penalty on mentally retarded capital murderers, setting forth sentencing guidelines as well as the Supreme Court’s reasoning. Finally, this Comment proposes an alternative to the legislatures’ I.Q.-exemption statutes. It suggests hurdles courts must overcome before imposing the death penalty on mentally retarded capital murderers. The proposed guidelines will continue punishing culpable mentally retarded defendants, while exonerating incompetent mentally retarded defendants. Legislatures and courts throughout the United States should adhere to the common-law understanding of mental deficiency when considering capital punishment. The common law prohibited the punishment of those who were totally lacking in reason or the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. It may be cruel and unusual punishment to execute persons who are profoundly retarded and wholly lacking capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions. Finding the mentally retarded exempted from the death penalty, however, means no matter how heinous the crime, or how cognitively functional the offender, they could never be executed. This means they would be licensed to kill.


St. Mary's University School of Law