The U.S. Supreme Court may soon halt the execution of mentally retarded
murderers. If so, the sentences of some of Alabama's 187 Death Row convicts
could be reduced to life in prison without chance of parole. Alabama is
one of the busiest death penalty states in the nation and has sent mentally
retarded convicts to the electric chair. Elsewhere, more than half of the
states and most other nations have banned the execution of the mentally
retarded, saying it violates modern standards of
humanity. Their argument goes something like this: We do not execute a 12-year-old who murders, so why execute a
man whose mind works at the level of a 12-year-old? Now the Supreme Court is going to hear the case of a Virginia convict, Daryl Atkins. In his appeal, lawyers for Atkins claim his retardation should bar his execution formurdering an airman in 1996, a killing done to get beer money. If the court decides in favor of Atkins, some convicts may move off Alabama's Death Row.
They include Glenn Holladay, a triple murderer in Etowah County whose victims included his ex-wife and an innocent bystander; Kenneth Thomas, a man who sexually abused, robbed and murdered an 82-year-old woman in Athens; and "Junior" Borden, a repeat killer who stabbed to death a 61-year-old woman on her front porch near Moulton, in front of her 8- and 10-year-old grandchildren. In Glenn Holladay's trial, one prosecutor asked the jury to recommend death, saying, "When you got something that has got rabies you don't have any choice, you've got to kill it. And this rabid dog needs to be put out of our community ... " But the Supreme Court is revisiting the question of whether the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments should bar the execution of a convict who is mentally retarded.
Glenn Holladay's prosecutor, James Hedgspeth Jr., scoffs at Holladay's claims of mental retardation. "This issue of him being retarded is a scam by his lawyers to keep him from facing the electric chair ... which he is long overdue for," James Hedgspeth said. The mother of a teenage boy murdered by Glenn Holladay calls the idea of his retardation "the biggest joke." "He may be mental, but he's not retarded," said Clara Thomas, who lost her only child. "He's just mean ..."
The Supreme Court in the past has said that the list of punishments
that are cruel and unusual can change with "evolving standards of decency
that mark the progress of a maturing society." When the justices looked
at the question of executing
mentally retarded convicts 12 years ago, most states allowed such executions and the court decided the punishment was not cruel and unusual. The man who brought the issue to the Supreme Court was a Death Row killer in Texas, Johnny Paul Penry.
In 1979, John Paul Penry raped and beat a 22-year-old woman, Pamela Carpenter, who was decorating her new
home. Then he fatally stabbed Pamela Carpenter with scissors. He had already been in prison for a previous rape.Penry was sentenced to die, but his lawyers appealed to the Supreme Court, challenging the execution of a mentally retarded man. T hey argued that John Paul Penry's IQ, measured between 50 and 63, made it unconscionable to execute him. The court rejected that argument. In her 1989 opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said America showed no popular consensus "at present" against the execution of a retarded person. She noted that only two states at the time prohibited the execution of a
mentally retarded person, and just 14 other states had rejected capital punishment completely. Numbers have shifted.
In 30 states and the District of Columbia and in federal prisons, the
mentally retarded may not be executed today. Among the 38 states that have
the death penalty, 18 bar execution of the mentally retarded. The
law in five of those states Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona
and Missouri changed just this year. The
Texas Legislature passed a similar ban this year, but the governor vetoed
it. This shift may be why the Supreme Court has said it will hear the
appeal of the Virginia killer, Daryl
Atkins. How many mentally retarded people are on Death Row? The state of Alabama won't share its numbers. A
conservative estimate of the proportion of mentally retarded on Death Row across America is 10 percent, said Denis Keyes, a psychologist and mental retardation expert at the College of Charleston, in South Carolina. This suggests around 19 Death Row inmates in Alabama are retarded. Safeguards already exist: Some say there is no need for any change. Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor and others argue that the criminal justice system already has safeguards. The jury and the judge can consider mental retardation as a mitigating factor when they consider a death sentence. And death sentences are
sought only for crimes that are brutal and heinous enough to deserve execution. Those who seek to ban the execution of mentally retarded convicts respond with the argument that a mentally retarded adult can never be blameworthy enough to deserve execution. They say such a person is less able to cope with and function in the everyday world. Like a child, the mentally retarded adult may be impulsive and unable to communicate well; have a short attention span; and not understand the
consequences of his actions. Punishment should be proportional to the blame a criminal deserves, they argue; we don't execute a 15-year-old who has murdered. And the severity and finality of execution are reasons for limiting it to those who can understand and control what they do. The American Bar Association makes another argument: That letting mentally retarded convicts risk the chance of a death sentence erodes the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system. Mentally retarded people are often eager to please, may try to hide their disability, and may physically appear normal when they are not, the American Bar Association notes. This can lead to all sorts of problems when they are suspected of crimes.
In a brief to the Supreme Court, the association tells of mentally retarded
suspects who wrongly confessed to, and were convicted of, crimes they didn't
commit, just because they wanted to please investigators; or who acted
inappropriately in court. After one man smiled during his trial as part
of his habit of trying to win the approval of others, the prosecutor told
jury that the smiling showed lack of remorse. In other words, the association says, the criminal justice system cannot ensure fairness in death sentences for mentally retarded defendants. The thinking of the Supreme Court is not known. But
the court earlier this year stayed the executions of two murderers who claim to be mentally retarded. Each stay which requires the votes of 5 justices came after the prisoner had eaten his last meal. Court watchers say these stays indicate the 9-member court may be poised to ban execution of mentally retarded convicts.
Who speaks for victims?:
Near Gadsden, Clara Thomas and her husband, Larry Thomas Sr., have waited
14 years to see Glenn Holladay die in Alabama's electric chair for murdering
their only son. Their trailer home has Larry's pictures all over the wall
Larry as a baby, Larry at 3, 5 and 7. He is smiling. Larry's father is
silent and wipes away tears as his wife talks to a visitor about their
son. He wears a white T-shirt with a picture of Larry on a bicycle. Since
his son died, the 54-year-old Larry Thomas Sr. has sickened, suffering
strokes, an aneurysm and diabetes. Mrs. Thomas says she called her son
"The Kid." He used to bring home stray animals and frogs, lizards and turtles.
He would have been age 31, if he had lived. Around her neck, she wears
a necklace engraved with the last words she heard from him: "I love you,
mom." As for Glenn Holladay, she has few words. "That man
should have been dead years ago."
By Jeff Hansen, Val Walton, and Patricia Dedrick, News staff writers