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Mentally Retarded would be Spared Death Penalty in Senate Bill

March 18, 2002
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Mentally Retarded would be Spared Death Penalty in Senate Bill

by George Strawley, Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania should join 16 other states in banning the execution of mentally retarded defendants, supporters of a bill told a Senate panel Monday.

"It's especially troubling to me that we could execute a mentally retarded person who cannot differentiate between right and wrong," said Sen. Edward W. Helfrick, R-Northumberland, during a hearing on the bill by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "While many disagree with my opposition to the death penalty, a majority agrees that we should not execute the mentally retarded."

Opinion polls consistently show that a majority of people, including those who support the death penalty, oppose applying it to the mentally retarded, proponents of the bill said.

The bill before the Senate panel would prevent the imposition of the death penalty in instances where a subject tests at 70 or less on an IQ test and shows an impaired ability to adapt. The mental retardation must also have manifested itself before the defendant reached the age of 22.

But the bill has opposition from, among other groups, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which says other means already exist for fairly protecting the rights of the mentally retarded.

The bill "simply carves out an arbitrary category of capital murderers who could avoid execution," despite their having the ability to plan and deliberate a murder and know the difference between right and wrong, said M.L. "Skip" Ebert, the district attorney for Cumberland County.

"It contravenes the underlying theory of criminal justice that there should be an individualized determination of each defendant and the circumstances of the particular offense," Ebert said.

Instead, courts should continue to rely on the sentencing phase of a trial, where factors that mitigate against the death penalty are explored, to consider the issue of a defendant's mental retardation, Ebert said.

Of 245 inmates on death row in Pennsylvania, 26 might have a mental retardation claim, Ebert said, quoting a state Department of Corrections official.

Robert Dunham, a Philadelphia-based capital defense attorney, said he found 15 defendants in 150 capital murder cases in which the defendant tested at levels indicating mental retardation. In 14 of those 15 cases, no evidence of mental retardation was presented during the defendant's trial, he said.

"That's an astonishing figure," Dunham said. "And it really is a powerful indictment of what is going wrong in our system."

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel would review testimony and examine suggestions made by witnesses before deciding whether to act on the bill. "There are many options," said Greenleaf, R-Montgomery.

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