This past Wednesday, Texas executed a mentally handicapped individual named Yokamon Hearn who had been convicted of car jacking and murder. The state of Georgia could likely do the same on Monday. These cases have garnered the attention of both Amnesty International and the United Nations, who declared that the execution “would be a fatality in violation of international as well as domestic law.”
The domestic law that the UN is citing is the 2002 Supreme Court ruling Atkins v. Virginia, which states that individuals with mental handicaps cannot be sentenced to death. The ruling, however, allows states to determine what qualifies as a mental handicap. Georgia has the strictest stance on who qualifies as mentally handicapped, stating that there must be proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual should be receive such a designation.
The obvious moral issue here comes from intersection of disabilities and unforgivable crime. The SCOTUS has already ruled that someone with a proven developmental disability cannot be executed, with the logic that they didn’t have complete agency or understanding of the crime they committed. Laws, in my eyes, are meant to govern by an ethical foundation to whichwe as a country can relate. We all identify certain crimes as morally reprehensible, i.e murder, rape, assault, etc. That the SCOTUS ruled against the execution of mentally handicapped people is of no small importance in this case; it underlines that we as a society have an ethical obligation to recognize the differences in intent in these crimes.
What it comes down to unfortunately is nitty gritty definitions. Like I said earlier, Georgia’s law states that one needs to be mentally handicapped beyond a reasonable doubt. Warren Hill, the Georgia citizen, has an IQ of 70. Hearn, who was executed in Texas, was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Both, then, are by definition mentally handicapped. So where’s the issue? Truthfully, I’m not really sure; only the courts can know. Both of these men were sentenced to death prior to the 2002 ruling, so it is possible that the courts are simply being stubborn.
Or, could the issue be that both men are black in two states with a deeply ingrained history of racism? While I’m going operate under the premise that we live in a society of equal access and equal representation within the courts (utopia, right?), I do think that race iss a variable that should be recognized. Black on white crime could elicit a different response than intra-racial crime.
While Hearn became one of the first to be executed with a new single-dose drug, Hill will be waiting until Monday to hear his fate. His only hope lies with the SCOTUS. I wish that there were a conclusion to this that could bring any sort of closure to the situation. The only conclusion I can come to is an all-encompassing response to capital punishment. Do two wrongs make a right? The judges of each case were forced to make their decisions in a moral no-mans land. I can only hope that this leads to a loud response and a more clearly defined capital punishment law.