WHAT WE THINK
June 28, 2002 | Page 3
IN ANOTHER blow to the machinery of death, the U.S. Supreme Court last week banned the execution of the mentally retarded. The 6-3 decision ends a practice that barely exists in any other country in the world--the state murder of prisoners with the mental age of preteens.
At least 100 prisoners will have their sentences commuted in the 20 states that still permit these executions.
Within a few days, the Supreme Court returned to the question of the death penalty--and overturned death sentences for at least 160 prisoners with a decision that requires juries and not judges to make sentencing decisions in capital cases.
Thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court reviewed the question of executing the mentally retarded and shamefully ruled that it was perfectly constitutional. But in the years since, 16 states and the federal government banned the practice, convincing a majority of justices that social "standards of decency" had evolved. In other words, what has "evolved" is the growing questioning of capital punishment.
Years of pressure by anti-death penalty activists and the exposure of the system's many injustices have eaten away at what was once overwhelming public support. Two states--Illinois and Maryland--have imposed a complete moratorium on executions, and there are numerous proposals to "fix" the system.
Unfortunately, last week's decision comes too late to save an estimated 40 mentally retarded people who were put to death in the last quarter-century. People like Ricky Ray Rector, an Arkansas man whose mental retardation had been clear since childhood, but was even more obvious after he shot himself in the head.
On the night he was executed in 1992, Rector ate his last meal--but set aside the dessert, saying that he wanted to save it for later. Rector was killed anyway--and for blatantly political purposes.
Bill Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, had returned home from the presidential campaign trail, looked over the evidence and approved Rector's execution--in order to prove that he wasn't "soft on crime."
The Supreme Court's two new rulings will have a profound impact on death rows across the country. But the issues they take up are only the tip of the iceberg.
The death penalty is plainly racist--close to half of all prisoners on death row are people of color. Only the poor end up on death row--because defendants with enough money to hire a decent attorney can usually avoid a death sentence. And the number of death row prisoners proven innocent and released--some after coming within hours of being put to death--passed the 100 mark earlier this year.
The U.S. Supreme Court has admitted the barbarism of one of the cruelest faces of the death penalty system. But any honest examination will have to admit that the whole system is sick--and needs to be abolished.
Opponents of the death penalty can celebrate this latest victory--and use it as inspiration for building our struggle to end all executions, once and for all.