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Drawing the Line: Execution of the Mentally Retarded
March 28, 2002
By Katherine C. Markham

Where do we, as a nation, draw the line? For the second time in less than a decade, the United States Supreme Court is faced with a plethora of questions of morality and justice as they work to decide the outcome of the case of Daniel Atkins v. the state of Virginia. This case is one that calls into question the constitutionality of the state of Virginia’s decision to execute Daniel Atkins, a mentally retarded inmate.

As the Supreme Court justices deliberate this case, the American public needs to think seriously about where we draw the line. National consensus seems to be generally set against the execution of minors, so why should it be in any way acceptable to execute criminals who are mentally retarded and function at child-like levels? Members of the psychological community hold that even at age 16 or 17 a person’s ability to distinguish right from wrong may not be fully developed. Taking this into consideration, there should be no question that a person even with mild retardation (who, according to psychological standards would function at best at a sixth grade level) is not going to have a complete comprehension of society’s accepted definitions of “right” and “wrong.”

This ability to know the difference between right and wrong is only part of the issue at hand when we talk about the execution of mentally retarded individuals. How can we, as Americans, truly serve justice, when we are sending people to death row that may not even understand, or have the capacity to understand, the intricate workings of our justice system. Much like a minor, a mentally retarded individual (because of their diminished capacity to function at normal levels) will more than likely have a diminished capacity to defend themselves in a trial, much less will they understand the scope of all that is involved in trials, charges, and sentencing of criminals. To serve the death penalty as the sentence to a criminal who does not mentally have the capacity to participate and act in his or her own interest in a trial is unfair to say the least.

While our nation’s practice of executing criminals is most assuredly going to continue (much to the dismay of people who feel that killing is wrong even when done by the government in the name of “justice”) it is time we as a nation revisited our collective definitions of what we consider morally right and wrong. Now is the time for the Supreme Court and every citizen to rethink what we consider to be “cruel and unusual.” Surely we can’t deny justice to mentally retarded people who are unable to demand it for themselves.

Katherine C. Markham is a high school student with a mission - to end injustice in a nation that claims to love "justice" yet can't seem to serve it.

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