Mentally Retarded Criminals Should Face The Death Penalty

2485 words - 10 pages


    On June 26, 1989, the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Penry v. Lynaugh, upheld the imposition of the death penaklty on a mentally retarded offender, John Penry (Chan 1211). The Court, also, held that the Federal Constitution's eighth amendment's cruel and unusual punishment clause is not violated by the execution of mentally retarded defendants (Cook 869). I strongly concur with the United States Supreme Court's decision. I do not believe that mentally retarded defendants should be categorically exempt from the death penalty because of their retardation. I hold this position because IQ test results are sometimes unreliable, there are different degrees of ...view middle of the document...

Each IQ test incorporates a standard error of measurement, which is the variation between the obtained score and the true score. This difference is sometimes as much as fifteen points. Thus, the IQ score obtrained by a defendant is only one of many possible scores that may be achieved with different sample questions or the same questions at a different time (Rumley 1334). Should a mentally retarded defendant with an IQ of 70 be exempt from the death penalty when his score could range anywhere from 85 to 55? I vehemently believe that a blanket exemption from the death penalty because of an unreliable IQ score is wrong. In addition, Grossman states that the IQ's of mentally retarded persons do not remain constant. Studies have shown great fluctuation in IQ scores for such reasons as fatigue or illness. Numerous studies indicate that motivational factors can affect IQ scores (Grossman 26-27). Certainly a defendant facing the death penalty would be highly motivated to do poorly on an IQ test knowing that a score of 70 or below could save him from the death penalty.

Although the reliability of IQ test results is questionable, many states including Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Mexico have enacted legislation categorically prohibiting the execution of defendants who have an IQ of 70 or below (Rumley 132). These states presume that no mentally retarded defendant could ever act with the degree of blameworthiness associated with the death penalty (Rumley 132). This is a totally wrong assumption. That a particular IQ score is indicative of a specific degree of mental retardation must be rejected. Sarason, a clinical psychologist, states that it cannot be emphasized too strongly that a low IQ score does not enable one to state in what ways a particular individual is different from others with an identical score, what his reactions are to a variety of situations, his attitudes towards himself and others, and what effects he will produce on what kinds of people in what kinds of situations (qtd. in Woody 11). Regrettably, as previously mentioned, in several states, the IQ is the singular most heavily weighted factor in determining whether or not a defendant should receive the death penalty. Exonoration from the death penalty should not be based on a fallacious IQ score.

 

The problem with basing exemption from the death penalty on an IQ score is that IQ does not adequately relate to measures to everyday functioning nor the understanding of right from wrong. People obtaining the same IQ score vary widely in talents and social competence. These dissimilarities result from motivational factors and personality as well as social background (Zigler & Farber 398). IQ then should not be an indicator of everyday functioning. In the Penry v Lanaugh case, Justice O'Connor states that "there are various degrees of mental retardation and mentally retarded people are individuals of various abilities"...

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