Supreme Court Will Hear Case On Executing The Mentally Retarded

In another sign that the growing opposition to the death penalty is having an effect, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments in a case that challenges the constitutionality of executing the mentally handicapped.

In late March, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Ernest McCarver, a North Carolina man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1987. McCarver has an IQ of 67. In announcing their verdict, the jury in his original trial determined that McCarver functioned "intellectually as a 10- or 12-year-old" but that he should be put to death anyway.

The decision to hear McCarver’s case came one day before the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Texas death row prisoner John Paul Penry, who came within hours of being executed last November. Penry has an IQ of 56. He has almost been executed twice, but "seems uncertain about just what that means," the New York Times wrote. When Penry learned that his execution had been stayed in November, he asked if he could still have his last meal.

Stories like McCarver’s and Penry’s have caused outrage around the globe. The U.S. remains one of the only countries in the world to allow the execution of the mentally handicapped.

According to legal experts, the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the McCarver case will put an effective moratorium on executions of the mentally handicapped. Oral arguments won’t be heard until the fall, and a decision isn’t expected until early 2002. Executions of any mentally retarded prisoners are unlikely during that time.