The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not] be inflicted” upon those who have been convicted of a crime. Short, simple, and straight to the point. Yet, why do we continue to battle with this issue today?
In 2002, the Atkins v. Virginia federal trial analyzed the question of whether those who are diagnosed as “mentally retarded” can be executed constitutionally. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that sentencing these inmates to death row was “cruel and unusual,” since they don’t have the same mental capacity as other offenders, and therefore should not be prosecuted as harshly. This was one of the cases that our class studied in the past unit, and you could only imagine my surprise when I recently read a headline mentioning a similar situation approaching the Supreme Court.
“High court to look at death row inmate with low IQ,” the title of the article read. “How ironic,” I thought, “since we just covered a similar case. Maybe it’s the anniversary?” I quickly clicked the article and was appalled to read that it was a different case, with many of the same characteristics as Atkins. What perplexed me the most was the fact that a seemingly identical case was being argued before the Supreme Court a little more than a decade after the first. Here’s a little background on the current issue. Freddie Lee Hall, along with Mack Ruffin, was sentenced to death row after being convicted of the murder of 21 year-old, pregnant Karol Hurst in 1978. Because of the gruesome nature of the crime, it only seems natural that the Florida Criminal System would want these felons to be sentenced to death. And that is exactly what they did. Well, originally. Ruffin’s sentence was eventually changed to life in prison. In 1989, Hall’s first sentence was thrown out, and a judge ordered a new hearing. He was, once again, sentenced to death, but also declared mentally disabled. However, since this was before Atkins he was still considered eligible for the death penalty. But, since Atkins was decided 13 years later, you would think the court would reassess his sentence. You would be wrong. Although the ruling restricted individual states’ ability to execute mentally disabled convicts, it ultimately left the determination of what is considered to be “mentally-retarded” as a state decision, and Florida set its state IQ limit at 70. Since Hall’s IQ skirts barely above 70 (it was once declared as 71), he is ineligible for having his sentence changed.
How is it justice that Hall has to face death, when his accomplice was given life in prison? Thankfully, the case will be heard before the Supreme Court in early 2014. Although Atkins answered the important question about the constitutionality of executing mentally disabled inmates, it opened the door for an influx of other questions concerning our treatment of the mentally disabled in our criminal system.
Instead of receiving treatment, larger and larger quantities of the mentally ill are being herded in prisons. If you look below, you see that as the 20th Century progressed, the number of mentally-ill in mental facilities decreased as the number of mentally-ill in prisons increased. For every 100,000 adults in 2001, which is around the time of the Atkins decision, there were fewer than 100 mentally-disabled adults in mental hospitals, while there were 600 incarcerated.
Another aspect of this pressing issue is the absence of federal standardization of what IQ is considered to be “mentally retarded.” Is it fair if a man with a score of 75 is eligible for death row in one state, but ineligible in another? If you answered no, then you will find the current process to be appalling. Currently, there are 9 states with very strict IQ requirements related to the death penalty (Florida, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington), and there is no standardization for state IQ requirements. Even if an inmate scores slightly above the maximum value of one of these nine states, they will be ruled eligible for death penalty, regardless of whether their score makes them ineligible in another state. The fact that Hall was declared mentally disabled by a judge, previous to the Atkins case, has no resonance here.
How is that justice for all?
ATKINS v. VIRGINIA. The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 21 October 2013.
“High Court to Look at Death Row Inmate With Low IQ.” Fox News. N.p., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.
“Mental Healthcare.” Cartoon. PoliticalCartoons.com. Daryl Cagle’s PoliticalCartoon.com Store, 18 Dec. 2012. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.politicalcartoons.com/cartoon/9975b463-1f26-4a94-9c2d-a18dd0da3e2e.html.
“Mentally Ill in the Prison Population.” Chart. Beltwayoutsiders.wordpress.com. Beltwayn Outsiders, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://beltwayoutsiders.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/mentally-ill-in-the-prison-population.png?w=750.
No Justice, No Peace. Digital image. Vote29.com. Cactus Thorns, n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. http://www.vote29.com/newmyblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/NO-JUSTICE-NO-PEACE.jpg.