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Intellectual Disability and the Death Penalty

In a landmark 2002 case, Atkins v. Virginia,  the Supreme Court of the United States banned the execution of people with intellectual disability as unconstitutional under the 8th amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

AAIDD strongly supports the Court’s decision in the Atkins case; AAIDD’s amicus (friend-of-the-Court) brief was cited by the Justices in support of its ruling that the Constitution protects all defendants with intellectual disability. 

In its ruling, the Court referenced, but did not mandate the use of the AAIDD (formerly AAMR) definition and diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability (known at that time as “mental retardation”), leaving states to define the condition within their own justice statutes.  While many states with the death penalty have adopted a definition consistent with the contemporary clinical definition; some states have crafted definitions that effectively exclude people with mild intellectual disability from the protection provided under the Atkins decision.

AAIDD strongly supports the Court’s decision in the Atkins case, which held that all defendants with intellectual disability are protected from the death penalty, and contends that no state has the option of adopting a definition that recognizes only some defendants with intellectual disability as protected by this decision.

This week, the Court agreed to hear a Florida death penalty case (Hall v. Florida) concerning the definition of “mental retardation” (now known as intellectual disability) that states may use in deciding whether an individual is protected under the Court’s 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia. AAIDD is confident that the Supreme Court will continue to insist on the Constitution’s full protection for all people with intellectual disability.

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See two related items in the New York Times

October 22, 2013 editorial: Intellectual Disabilty and the Dealth Penalty
October 21, 2013 article: Justices Return to a Dealth Penalty Issue