Justice for murderers

The U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of fixing an egregious error it made 11 years ago and, in the process, eliminating one problem that taints the most serious part of the U.S. justice system.

The court heard arguments last week in the case of Atkins vs. Virginia on whether it is permissible to execute mentally retarded criminals. Should it choose to overturn its 1989 decision permitting these executions, it will have taken the first meaningful step in eliminating a punishment so inconsistent and unreliable it should have been deemed cruel and unusual long ago.

Daryl Renard Atkins, the defendant, robbed for beer money, then murdered Airman Eric Nesbitt outside Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Nesbitt was 21 at the time, and Atkins was 18.

Though the horrible nature of the crime cannot be debated – after car-jacking Nesbitt and forcing him to withdraw $260 from an ATM, Atkins and his accomplice drove the victim to a secluded field and shot him eight times – Atkins’ IQ of 59 shows the murder was committed not by a ravenous psychopath but by a man who understood what he did little, if at all, better than a child would. Killing someone who cannot grasp the depth of the concepts on which we base our society is not justice. And the fact that we have let it continue in this nation, this beacon of freedom, is an embarrassment.

Like any Supreme Court case, the issue goes far beyond the defendant. Estimates by different groups put the percentage of mentally retarded death row inmates – those with an IQ of less than 70 – somewhere between 10 percent and 25 percent. By contrast, only an estimated 1 percent of U.S. citizens are mentally retarded, a statistic that testifies better than any lawyer could for ceasing these unwarranted executions.

Supreme Court justices centered most of their debate on the issue of consensus. Last time, they said, the nation was firmly in favor of executing the mentally retarded, with only two states having laws to the contrary.

Now, however, 30 states prohibit those executions – 12 states do not allow executions at all, and 18 legislated against these specific executions. Even President George W. Bush spoke, in a roundabout, puzzling sort of way, against killing mentally retarded inmates. He said he is against it, though he put two mentally retarded prisoners to death while serving as governor of Texas.

Times have changed, finally, and the Supreme Court must recognize this. Though the decision promises to be close – in 1989, it decided on the issue 5-4 – we remain hopeful they will recognize the previous error and make a just decision against these unjust killings.