Federal Court Finds Georgia's Standards for Mental Retardation (Intellectual Disability) Unconstitutional

On June 18, a federal appeals court in Atlanta held that the burden Georgia places on death-penalty defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled, and thus exempt from the death penalty, is unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit said that requiring defendants to prove intellectual disability (mental retardation) "beyond a reasonable doubt" violates the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishments. It could also result in the execution of intellectually disabled defendants, which the U.S. Supreme Court barred in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia.  "This conception of the reasonable doubt standard, by its very terms, ensures that some, if not many, mentally retarded offenders will be executed in violation of the Eighth Amendment," said the court.  Fred Bright, a district attorney in Georgia, said the ruling came as no surprise. "I like to try a death case once and get it right the first time. I knew Georgia's law was hanging by a thread because it was all the way out there all by itself."  The ruling could result in new hearings for 10 death row inmates according to the Georgia Appellate Practice and Educational Resource Center. The defendant in the current case is Warren Hill, who was sentenced to death in 1991 despite evidence that he was mentally retarded.

(B. Rankin, "Mental retardation burden of proof in death cases unconstitutional," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 18, 2010).  See also Intellectual Disability.