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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
MARCH 20, 2001
1:46 PM
CONTACT:  Human Rights Watch
Carroll Bogert, Communications Director
(212) 736-1300
U.S. Execution of Mentally Retarded Condemned
State Legislatures Urged to Act
 

NEW YORK - March 20 - Twenty-five U.S. states still permit the execution of offenders with mental retardation and should pass laws to ban the practice without delay, Human Rights Watch said in releasing today the first comprehensive human rights-based analysis of such executions.

On March 27, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the constitutional appeal of Johnny Paul Penry, who has the mental skills of a six-and-a-half year old. The court stayed his execution date of November 16, 2000, pending a ruling on his appeal. In the last four weeks, the court has also stayed the executions of two other mentally retarded offenders who are challenging the constitutionality of their death sentences.

"Executing adults with the minds of children is nothing short of barbaric," said Jamie Fellner, Human Rights Watch Associate Counsel and an author of the fifty-page report, Beyond Reason: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation. "Polls show most supporters of the death penalty agree. It is time for legislators to outlaw this senseless cruelty."

The United States appears to be the only democracy whose laws expressly permit the execution of persons with this severe mental disability. At least thirty-five mentally retarded people have been executed in the United States since 1976. An estimated two to three hundred currently await execution on death row.

Legislation to prohibit the death penalty for the mentally retarded is currently under consideration in a number of states, including Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of persons with mental retardation was not unconstitutional. The court concluded there was no national consensus against such executions because only two states prohibited them. Since then, the number of states that legislatively exempt mentally retarded persons from the death penalty has grown to thirteen, in addition to the federal government.

Beyond Reason provides numerous examples of persons who have been sentenced to death despite the profound intellectual limitations they have suffered since birth:

· When Johnny Paul Penry was convicted of murder in Texas, he had an I.Q. that had been measured on different tests between 50 and the low sixties (100 is the average), he could not read or write, name the days of the week or months of the year, or name the president of the United States.

· After Doil Lane confessed to murdering a young girl, he climbed into the lap of the police officer who was questioning him. He asked the judge for crayons so he could color pictures during his trial.

· Jerome Holloway, convicted of murder in Georgia, had an I.Q. of 49 and could not tell the time, recite the alphabet, or identify the country he lived in.

· Limmie Arthur, convicted of murder in South Carolina, was asked to recite the alphabet by a psychologist evaluating him. He began to sing the nursery rhyme of the ABCs, but could only get half way through.

Offenders with mental retardation are particularly vulnerable to the well-documented arbitrariness and high risk of error in U.S. capital trials, according to Human Rights Watch. Beyond Reason documents how mentally retarded people are incapable of understanding - much less protecting - their constitutional rights; how their characteristic suggestibility and willingness to please leads them to confess - even falsely - to capital crimes; and how they are unable to understand the legal proceedings against them and assist in their own defense.

· Eddie Mitchell, on death row in Louisiana, waived his right to remain silent and to have an attorney present during his police interrogation. Later, when asked by his lawyer if he understood what it meant to waive his rights, Mitchell simply waved his hand.

· Before his execution, Morris Mason asked for advice on what to wear to his funeral.

· Earl Washington confessed to a crime he did not commit after a long police interrogation. The courts held he had "knowingly" waived his right against self-incrimination even though Washington's mental capacity was that of a ten-year-old.

· Robert Wayne Sawyer, asked to explain the concept of "reasonable doubt," pointed to the smoke from a crushed cigarette and said that when the smoke stopped "it's reasonable out."

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