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Retardation Claims


On June 20, 2002, the United States Supreme Court announced in Atkins v. Virginia that execution of a mentally retarded person was unconstitutional. Since then, the anti-death-penalty crowd has expressed disappointment that there have not been a great number of sentences overturned on this ground. Some see dark conspiracies to evade the law and execute retarded people anyway (see, e.g., Elaine Cassel on Findlaw).

A simpler explanation is that juries were sentencing very few retarded people to death before Atkins, and most of the claims being made now are bogus. From Alameda County,* California, comes this scathing trial court decision on one such claim. This is a sordid tale of experts who prostitute themselves to achieve a particular result, of lawyers who feed them a filtered version of the facts to support the result they want, and of lay witnesses who simply lie through their teeth.

* Oakland and vicinity


I wonder if the taxpayers had to pay for the experts in the Alameda County case.

This California case certainly appears like an abuse of the process. However, this type of thing can go both ways. I offer by way of example the case of Walter Bell Jr., who spent several decades on Texas' death row.

During the punishment phase of Bell's trial, which of course took place many, many years before Atkins, prosecutors relied on a team of state experts to establish without a doubt that Bell was mentally retarded. They then used evidence of Bell's mental retardation to convince jurors that he would pose a continuing danger unless he were executed.

Fast-forward, post-Atkins: Bell's appellate team used evidence of Bell's mental retardation to try to have his life spared. Prosecutors, however, this time argued that Bell was not mentally retarded!

In this case, the system worked as I think it is supposed to. Judges ruled that Bell was, indeed, mentally retarded and he was removed from death row.

You can read more about this case here:


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