Washington, June 20 2002– Executing mentally retarded killers violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, reversing an earlier decision and ending a practice permitted in 20 states.

The 6-3 decision in the case of a Virginia man convicted of a 1996 murder said “evolving standards of decency” preclude sentencing the retarded to death.

“We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

The decision caps a remarkable societal transformation. When the court last addressed the issue in 1989, only the U.S. government and Georgia specifically banned executions of the retarded, with a Maryland ban poised to take effect.

Since then, 16 more death-penalty states joined their ranks. Another 12 states don’t have capital punishment at all.

Those numbers proved crucial for the court, which has used the punishments clause to accelerate societal trends against particular practices. The majority said a “national consensus” now exists against executions of retarded people.

The trend “provides powerful evidence that today our society views mentally retarded offenders as categorically less culpable than the average criminal,” Stevens said.

Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer joined the majority decision.

IQ Questioned

The ruling prompted Justice Antonin Scalia to take the unusual step of reading from his dissent from the bench.

“Seldom has an opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members,” Scalia wrote.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas also dissented.

Virginia is seeking to execute Daryl R. Atkins, who was convicted of robbing and murdering a man in 1996. Atkins’s lawyers say he has an IQ of 59. Experts generally consider 70 to be the dividing line for retardation. The state says Atkins isn’t retarded.

Virginia prosecutors argued that public opposition to capital punishment for the retarded is a fleeting trend that shouldn’t be elevated to the level of a constitutional requirement. The state said the average law banning the practice is only five years old.

Thirty-five mentally retarded people have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Supreme Court’s 1989 decision said states could execute retarded inmates so long as jurors had a chance to consider a defendant’s mental capacity as a potential mitigating factor.

National Consensus

O’Connor was the decisive vote in that case. She wrote that while “a national consensus against execution of the mentally retarded may someday emerge,” there was “insufficient evidence of such a consensus today.”

The states that bar execution of the mentally retarded are Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Washington.

The case is Atkins v. Virginia, 00-8452.