Soap Box:  Executing the Mentally Retarded

June 12, 2001

If you know me or have read my other article, then you know that I believe in and support capital punishment. My only reservation is that it is done with too much concern for the criminal, and the fact that life in prison (at hard labor if I had my way, and maybe some torture thrown in) might just be more punishing. The news lately seems to be focusing on cases where we have supposedly mentally retarded individuals sentenced to death for murder. Some are considering whether or not we should even have a death penalty for the mentally retarded. I believe their arguments against the death penalty for the mentally retarded are logically flawed.

The first questions that have to be answered are what exactly does mentally retarded mean and how does that relate to the criminal mind. Does being mentally retarded excuse a person from the criminal act? What degree of mental retardation is needed before we treat these people different from the other criminals committing the same exact acts upon the innocent victims? I think the term "mentally retarded" is thrown around too much and given too much importance with regard to criminal intent and responsibility. There was a recent case in Texas where a man convicted of rape and murder had his death sentence overturned by the Supreme Court, because of mental retardation and how it related to the trial. The sentence wasn't overturned because he is mentally retarded, but rather because the Supreme Court found that the instructions to the jury didn't stress enough how much they should consider his mental retardation. On the surface this might sound okay, but a comment by one of the justices demonstrated that their moral opinions were also influencing their ruling. A justice referred to the rapist/murderer as having the mind of a seven year old.

Let me tell you what this "seven-year-old" did. He broke into a house. He then raped the woman who lived there. He then went and got a pair of scissors and sat on her chest. He told her that she could identify him and report him so he was going to kill her. He then stabbed her to death with the scissors. Does this sound like the workings of a seven-year-old to you? How many seven-year-olds do you know that break into houses? I don't know of any seven-year-olds that would break into a strange house, even if the door were wide open and they could just walk on in. How many seven-year-olds do you know that contemplate rape? How many seven-year-olds do you know that think about someone identifying them? How many seven-year-olds do you know that think about and plan how to stop someone from reporting them? How many seven-year-olds do you know that know that killing someone will stop him or her from reporting his or her crime? My personal list of seven year olds that think and function in this manner is zero! Let's expand it a little further. How many seven-year-olds are you aware of that know how to survive on the street? Have jobs and realize it takes money and bill paying to survive? Can drive and operate a car? Understands all the traffic laws? Now you see what I mean. Although this particular rapist/murderer might not be the smartest person in the world, he's definitely functioning at a much higher mental level than a seven-year-old. He was smart enough to think and plan a crime and clever enough to try and cover his tracks. He had criminal intent and carried it out, no matter what some IQ test may say. Being stupid or dumb is not an excuse or defense.

But you hear people, such as this irresponsible Supreme Court justice throw around the term "mentally retarded" without thinking of the consequences. What happens is that people think of truly mentally retarded people, such as those with Down's syndrome, who need assisted living, and equate that mental capacity with the criminal in question. I think it takes a very high degree of mental retardation before you reach a point of where you are not aware of the consequences of your actions. And at that point, it's highly unlikely that you would be considering actions that have such serious legal ramifications.

My second point of contention with those that argue against the death penalty for the mentally retarded is that they are masking their real intentions. At least this applies to those that are truly informed on the how retarded the individual really is. I think most of these people are just against the death penalty, plain and simple, and they are using the term "mentally retarded" as a way to make their case. Think about it. If the person was truly retarded to a point of not being aware of what they are doing or that it is against the law, then where is the public outcry for those already serving life sentences or years in prison? If they didn't know what they were doing and aren't responsible, then they shouldn't be locked up. Granted, death does seem harsher than life in prison. But spending years upon years, or even a lifetime in a jail cell is not a picnic either. Think of sending a seven-year-old to "time out" forever! Since we don't hear people complaining about this severe punishment for the "mentally innocent", I truly believe their real agenda is to argue against the death penalty itself.

So, am I for executing the mentally retarded? Well, if you talking about all the ones I've seen so far in the criminal justice system that have the label "mentally retarded", I can answer without hesitation in the affirmative. The ones I've seen so far deserve the death penalty, in my opinion.

Jeff Polston

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