State Ok’s Executions of the “Mentally Deficient”

January 23, 2009

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a decision today which will allow the state to move forward with the execution of a Fayette County man who was found guilty and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a woman in 2004. James Vandivner had initially petitioned the court preclude the possibility of a death sentence, but the trial court ultimately determined that he could not show that he fit the state’s definition of "mentally retarded." The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that the execution of a mentally retarded person constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was, therefore, unconstitutional. 

This decision is based on the Court’s definition of what constitutes mental retardation for purposes of capital punishment. Pennsylvania defines mental retardation as having an IQ score of 70 or lower, having limited conceptual, social and practical skills, and having the age of onset be before the age of 18. In Mr. Vandivner’s case, he was unable to produce an IQ test from elementary or high school that showed that his mental difficulties began before he reached the age of 18.

A dissenting opinion issued by Justice Baer raises an interesting question…what about those students who attended a school which didn’t have the benefit of testing for mental retardation in school and, as a result, cannot produce some objective evidence of the "age of onset"? Do they not deserve the same protections?