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Mental retardation and capital sentencing procedures, Capital punishment, Death penalty, Eighth Amendment, Mental retardation and moral blameworthiness, Smith v. Kemp, Ford v. Wainwright


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure


Today, on death rows across the United States, sit a number of men with the minds of children. These people are mentally retarded. Typical of these individuals is Limmie Arthur, who currently is imprisoned at Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina. Although Arthur is twenty-eight years old, all the mental health professionals who have evaluated him, including employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, agree he has the mental capacity of approximately a 10-year-old child. Arthur was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a neighbor. At his first trial, his court appointed attorneys did not present any evidence regarding Mr. Arthur's mental retardation. Neither the first jury that sentenced Limmie Arthur to death nor the attorneys who represented him in that proceeding knew he was mentally disabled. After his death sentence was reversed by the South Carolina Supreme Court on other grounds, we became involved in the case. A routine psychological assessment revealed Limmie Arthur was mentally retarded. At his second trial, conducted before a judge sitting without a jury, extensive evidence regarding Arthur's mental retardation was presented. After deliberating for approximately one hour, the trial judge sentenced Arthur to death.

We suspected that the evidence regarding Arthur's mental retardation may have been misunderstood and that our client may have been sentenced to die not in spite of the fact he was mentally disabled but rather because he was mentally retarded. We immediately filed a motion for reconsideration and reduction of sentence. A hearing was conducted in conjunction with this motion several weeks later to determine whether the execution of any mentally retarded person is inconsistent with the eighth amendment to the United States Constitution. The court, however, refused to modify its prior ruling.

Limmie Arthur's case demonstrates in dramatic fashion the current failure of the American criminal justice system to adequately weigh mental retardation in the capital sentencing process. Whether a mentally retarded person such as Limmie Arthur should be sentenced to death is not a proper issue to be resolved by juries and judges on a case-by-case basis. After first describing what it means to be a person with mental retardation, this article will demonstrate that mental retardation is a significant and devastating mental impairment which reduces a mentally retarded person's moral blameworthiness to a level different in kind from other nonretarded persons accused of murder. Thus, the current procedures governing the imposition of the death penalty are inadequate to ensure mental retardation is given the weight it deserves in the sentencing process. Furthermore, this article will attempt to articulate the reasons the death penalty is never an appropriate sentence when imposed upon a person with mental retardation and, thus, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the eighth amendment. Finally, this article will set forth the reasons why mental retardation is a mitigating factor that deserves great weight in the capital sentencing process, and therefore, unique procedural protections are necessary in a case involving a mentally retarded defendant.

Publication Citation

Published in: Arkansas Law Review, vol. 41, no. 4 (1988).