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Mentally Disabled Teens and Juveniles and the Death Penalty

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The case first began in York County Court, a federal court in Virginia. During the penalty phase of Atkins’ trial, the defense called a witness who was a psychologist. The witness testified that Atkins had been “mildly mentally disabled” during the day of the crime (Oyez 2019). In other words, Atkins’ mental disabilities had prevented him from making a rational decision. The jury, however, still sentenced Atkins to death. The Virginia Supreme Court then ordered a second hearing since the trial court had used an incorrect verdict form (Capital Punishment in Context 2019). Verdict forms are documents with questions that a jury uses to make their final decision. At the re-sentencing, the State brought forth a rebuttal witness, who claimed that Atkins was not mentally retarded, but was of “average intelligence, at least,” and diagnosable as having anti-social personality disorder (Capital Punishment in Context 2019). Consequently, the jury sentenced Atkins to death. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed the sentence, relying on the case of Penry v. Lynaugh, which allowed capital punishment to be imposed on mentally disbled offenders. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted certiorari (Capital Punishment in Context 2019). A writ of certiorari is granted when a higher court orders a lower court to deliver its record so that the higher court can review it (Legal Information Institute 2019).

Atkins v. Virginia presented the Supreme Court with the issue if execution of a defendant with a mental disability was a cruel and unusual punishment, which was prohibited by the Eighth Amendment (Capital Punishment in Context 2019). Justice Scalia argued that Atkins’ execution would not violate the Eighth Amendment since the Bill of Rights had only prohibited execution of the “severely” mentally disabled, rather than “mildly” mentally disabled, which was the category Atkins fell into (Oyez 2019). Justice Stevens delivered the 6-3 concurring opinion that juveniles with mental disabilities can not be sentenced to death because the execution would violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “no cruel or unusual punishments”. Furthermore, Justice Stevens of the majority stated, “Those mentally retarded persons who meet the law’s requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes. Because of their disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgement, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.” (Legal Information Institute 2019). Atkins v. Virginia set a precedent which banned all future execution of mentally disabled criminals.

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Like Atkins, Christopher Simmons was also a teenager when he committed his crime. In Missouri in 1993, seventeen-year-old Simmons and fifteen-year-old Charles Benjamin planned to murder their neighbor, Shirley Crook (Wikipedia 2019). They intended to rob and murder Crook by breaking in and tying her up. Simmons and Benjamin met in the middle of the night and broke into Crook’s home, tying up the victim. The two then drove her to the state park before throwing her off of a bridge (Wikipedia 2019).

The case started in a Federal Court in Missouri, which sentenced Simmons to death. It then traveled through several smaller courts, with each continuing to affirm the sentence, to reach the Supreme Court of Missouri. Here, Simmons’ conviction was also affirmed. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

In the case of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court had to decide if it was admissible to carry out capital punishment on an offender who was between fifteen and eighteen years old (Capital Punishment in Context 2019). While Justice Scalia and Justice O’Connor argued that execution for juveniles over sixteen was constitutional, as stated by the precedent set by the Supreme Court case Stanford v. Kentucky, the majority argued that execution of a juvenile offender would violate his/her Eighth Amendment rights. As stated by Justice Kennedy with the 5-4 majority opinion, “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” (Oyez 2019). Christopher Simmons’ death sentence was nullified, which led Roper v. Simmons to set a precedent, banning all future execution of offenders under the age of eighteen.

While Simmons’ case was solely concerned around the age of the criminal, the case of Hall v. Florida concerned the Court with the mental abilities of the offender. Freddie Lee Hall, unlike Atkins and Simmons, had been convicted of numerous offenses throughout his life, including sexual assault. Hall was known to be a dangerous man well before he was sentenced to death for beating and killing Karol Hurst, a young woman. In the town of Leesburg, Florida in 1978, Hall raped and murdered Hurst after leaving the Pantry Pride Grocery Store. She was only twenty-one years old and seven months pregnant at the time (Jim Fisher True Crime 2018). Despite his first death sentence being nullified, Hall was sentenced to death a second time in 1991 (American Psychological Association 2019).

The case first began in Florida state court, where Hall sought a writ of habeas corpus, or a call to an unlawful punishment. Using the ruling from Atkins v. Virginia, Hall was able to file a successful petition with sufficient evidence as to being diagnosed with a mental disability (American Psychological Association 2019). However, because he had scored 73 and 80 on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-R), the trial court held that Hall did not establish signs of having mental disabilities (American Psychological Association 2019). After Florida state court sentenced him to death, Hall was then moved to a federal court in Florida, which additionally denied his second habeas petition. Hall then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which claimed a score of over 70 on the WAIS-R did not signify signs of intellectual disabilities (American Psychological Association 2019). Thus, Hall faced his third death sentence.

Hall’s case was reviewed and argued before the Supreme Court on March 3, 2014. The dissenting justices believed that an execution would be constitutional since “a large number of [s]tates had adopted 70 as the criterion.” (Oyez 2019). In other words, any score under 70 on the WAIS-R would indicate a sign of a mental disability. This concept had been used to create the final ruling in the case of Atkins v. Virginia. The majority justices argued that, although the Supreme Court of Florida based execution on a criminal’s IQ score, if an offender is not able to make rational judgements, the death penalty is irrational and violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments (Oyez 2019). According to Justice Kennedy of the 5-4 majority, “Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less. If, from test scores, a prisoner is deemed to have an IQ above 70, all further exploration of intellectual disability is foreclosed. This rigid rule, the Court now holds, creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.” (Case Text 2019). Freddie Hall’s execution was vacated, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole (Rooted in Rights 2016).

As these three cases have shown, the Supreme Court voted against the death penalty each time. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Supreme Court voted by a large majority with a 6-3 verdict against execution since Atkins was a mentally disabled juvenile when he committed the crime. However, in the cases of Roper v. Simmons and Hall v. Florida, the verdict was much closer, both at 5-4, showing how difficult the Court’s decisions were. While Simmons was a juvenile offender and Hall had a mental disability, Atkins was both. Nonetheless, the death penalty is a difficult issue for the Supreme Court to decide.

The death penalty will never have an easy conclusion, but human beings should not be the ones to decide death for another. Although one can imagine how difficult it would be to remain against capital punishment if a loved one had been brutally murdered, capital punishment seemingly “encourages” the idea of revenge (Green Garage 2015). Similarly, an article in the magazine Newsweek cited a study that concluded, “1 in 25 sentenced to death is innocent.” (Newsweek 2014). In addition, the death penalty can be irrational and confusing. Richard Hughes, drummer in the rock band Keane, remarked, “The bumper sticker says, ‘Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing is wrong?’ And I (Hughes) agree with that.” (Barber 2013, 6). If a criminal had been executed for homicide, he/she is being “killed for killing”. While capital punishment is meant to keep society safe and “in order”, no criminal should be held responsible for their crime with death.

Our country remains divided on capital punishment, and the Supreme Court continues to debate this issue. This past year, the case of Vernon Madison came before the Supreme Court. In April of 1985, Madison, a teenager, shot police officer Julius Schulte in the back of his head in Mobile, Alabama. Madison remained on death row for over 30 years, but due to several strokes and severe brain damage, he could not remember committing the crime (Oyez 2019). In the Supreme Court oral argument, which took place on October 2, 2018, defense counsel Brian Stevenson argued that the execution would violate the Eighth Amendment. On February 27, 2019, Madison’s death sentence was nullified. His case highlights how complicated the death penalty can be, and today’s nine Supreme Court justices all have differing opinions on capital punishment. The recent appointments of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh have led many to question whether the Court will become more conservative, and what impact it will have on the death penalty.

In October of 2018, a Gallup poll on the death penalty showed that 41% of Americans oppose the death penalty, 56% favor it, and 4% do not have an opinion (Gallup 2018). It seems likely, with the strength of the United States’ conservatism, that the percent in favor of capital punishment will continue to grow. This, combined with the Supreme Court’s new conservative justices, could possibly lead to the inevitable rise of executions. Americans should be reminded of the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” (AZ Quotes 2019). 

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