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State Law Puts Intellectually Disabled at Risk of Execution, Violates Prohibition Against Cruel & Unusual Punishment

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Published on: January 18, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Twenty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities is unconstitutional, The Rutherford Institute is challenging a Georgia law that puts people with intellectual disabilities at greater risk of execution. In an amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Young v. Georgia, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that a Georgia law, which places a heavy burden on defendants in capital punishment cases to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they have an intellectual disability in order to be exempt from the death penalty, effectively nullifies their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

Caitlin Halligan, Hannah Belitz, Claire O’Brien, Denae Kassotis, and Douglas Wagner of Selendy & Gay PLLC advanced the arguments in the brief. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty and a former member of the Georgia House of Representatives, Brett Harrell, also joined the brief in support.

“The Supreme Court’s determination that what constitutes ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment should be dependent on the ‘evolving standards of decency’ leaves us with little protection in the face of a society lacking in morals altogether,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The death penalty, which is flawed in its application and execution, especially as it applies to the disabled, is a perfect example of this.”

On June 20, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that executing individuals with intellectual disability (“mental retardation”) was an excessive punishment not in accord with our standards of decency. Specifically, the Court concluded that people with intellectual disabilities who commit crimes “are categorically less culpable” than the average person who commits a crime and that “death is not a suitable punishment” for a person with an intellectual disability who commits a crime. In order for a person to be generally classified as intellectually disabled, they must have: sub-average intellectual functioning (usually an I.Q. of 70 or below); difficulty coping in the everyday world; and manifested the disability prior to age eighteen. Unfortunately, because there is no state-wide standard for determining and defining intellectual disability, many states continue to struggle to bring their laws in compliance with Atkins. Although Georgia was the first state in the nation to prohibit executing individuals with intellectual disabilities, it is also the only state to impose a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in determining intellectual disability for death penalty exemptions. As a result of this heightened burden, few if any have ever successfully proven their intellectual disability in order to qualify for a death penalty exemption. In the case of Young v. Georgia, a jury found that Rodney Young—found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s adult son—had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he had an intellectual disability, despite evidence that he had been classified when young as “educable mentally retarded,” which indicated he had an IQ between 60 and 69. Young was subsequently sentenced to death, and the Supreme Court of Georgia later affirmed Young’s death sentence. The Rutherford Institute and its amici partners have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve the “unacceptable risk” that some intellectually disabled people would be executed under Georgia law.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

Amicus brief: Young v. Georgia

Article posted with permission from John Whitehead

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