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Bible Belt Executes More Mentally Retarded Inmates; States Debate Such Judicial Morality

Bible-Belt states have been more likely to execute mentally retarded defendants than other states, according to data compiled by the publication Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty Information Center.

Thirty-two of the 35 mentally retarded defendants given the death penalty between 1984 and 2000 were executed in southern states, statistics show.
“The fact that so many of the executions of the mentally retarded have occurred in southern states suggests a blood lust in widespread pockets of the Bible Belt,” said Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Some southern states are beginning to ban capital punishment for mentally retarded defendants after following through with executions in such cases. Still, legislation in more than half of southern states currently allows the death penalty for the mentally retarded.
Last week the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill banning the execution of mentally retarded offenders. Gov. Mike Easley is expected to sign the bill into law, which will make North Carolina the 18th state to adopt such a policy, according to the Charlotte Observer.
The bill defined a mentally retarded defendant as anyone with an IQ of 70 or lower before the age of 18 while exhibiting “significant limitations in adaptive functioning.”
The Council of Christian Life and Public Affairs (CCLPA) of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina supports the ban and believes “executing mentally retarded people is morally and ethically wrong,” said Doug Cole, executive director of the CCLPA.
As of the morning of July 31, Gov. Easley had yet to sign the bill.
In Texas, however, Gov. Rick Perry recently vetoed a similar bill.
“Texas’ criminal justice system already has numerous safeguards to ensure that defendants who have sub-average intellectual capacity and who also have significant impairments in adaptive functioning … are not executed,” Perry wrote in his veto proclamation.
The Death Penalty Information Center reported six executions of mentally retarded defendants in Texas since 1990. Perry denied mentally retarded defendants had been executed in his state because each “knew what they were doing was wrong,” the New York Times reported.
However, according to the Times, the test of whether a defendant knows right from wrong is used in cases of insanity, not mental retardation; most mentally retarded people are not insane and know right from wrong.
Perry added that signing the bill into law would undermine the jury system by giving judges the power to overturn a jury’s determination of whether a defendant was mentally retarded.
Susan Paynter, director of citizenship education for the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said her organization supported the ban as well as another bill vetoed by Perry. The other bill would have required giving juries the option of life without parole as a sentencing option.
The bill would have benefited anyone convicted in a capital case, including mentally retarded defendants, Paynter said.
The idea behind the bills, she said, is to provide a “safety net at the sentencing stage” so judges and juries have another option besides putting someone to death or letting a defendant go free.
Another cause for concern, Paynter said, is whether the mentally retarded receive “adequate and fair judicial and legal representation.” The Texas criminal justice system, she said, operates on the assumption that all citizens receive competent and adequate counsel.
However, “there are many Texans who feel like the criminal justice system doesn’t always provide the best counsel for our very vulnerable citizens (the poor and the mentally retarded),” Paynter said. This concern prompted many Texans to want the safety net in sentencing the bills would provide.
In July, Missouri became the 16th state to ban the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants, Associated Press reported.
Georgia banned capital punishment for the mentally retarded in 1988.
Other southern states that prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded include Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina (pending) still have the death penalty for the mentally retarded.
Southern states lead in total executions since 1976, accounting for 86 percent of state executions as of July 2001, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Jared Porter is BCE’s reporting intern.