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Wednesday, 20 February, 2002, 19:46 GMT
Court debates execution of mentally disabled
American execution chamber
More than 3,700 prisoners are on death row
The United States Supreme Court is considering whether it is right to execute mentally disabled prisoners in what is being described as a possible landmark case.

Campaigners against the death penalty say killing prisoners with low intelligence amounts to cruel punishment, which is banned under the US constitution.

But others argue that everyone knows the difference between right and wrong, regardless of their intelligence.

This is one of the most important death penalty cases to come to the Supreme Court in the last quarter century

Death penalty abolition activist

The number of states which have banned the execution of mentally disabled people has risen from two to 18 since the Supreme Court last looked at the issue in 1989.

The BBC's Tim Franks in Washington says support for the death penalty has slipped since then, which could help tip the judicial balance this time.

Possible precedent

Justices of the Supreme Court are reviewing the death sentence passed on Daryl Atkins - a convicted murderer who is on death row in Virginia.

According to one test, Atkins has an IQ of 59. People who score 70 or below are generally considered to be mentally disabled.
US Supreme Court in Washington
Last time the court debated the issue, the outcome was very close

He was convicted of carjacking and killing an airman in Virginia to get money for beer when he was 18.

The argument turns on whether executing mentally disabled prisoners amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is counter to the constitution.

If the court overturns his sentence, other death row inmates could pursue appeals.

A campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty, Steven Hawkins, said up to a quarter of death row inmates may have mental disability claims.

There are currently more than 3,700 people on death row.

How do you define retarded? Where do you draw the line?

death penalty campaigner

"This is one of the most important death penalty cases to come to the Supreme Court in the last quarter century," said Mr Hawkins, who is the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

A close outcome was likely, according to pro-death penalty activist Kent Scheidegger.

Justices could face many questions such as a definition of disability. "Where do you draw the line?", he said.

In 1989, the US Supreme Court upheld executions of mentally disabled people by a vote of five to four.

Its verdict this time round is expected by the summer.

See also:

04 Jun 01 | Americas
US court overturns death sentence
07 Mar 01 | Americas
US courts block death penalty cases
17 Jun 01 | Americas
Texas blocks bill on executions
23 Jun 00 | Americas
UN attacks US execution
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