Supreme Court Ruling Could Shrink Death Row


The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to outlaw the execution of the mentally retarded affects 20 states and, potentially, hundreds of death row inmates who could see their sentences commuted to life.

It could also rekindle the debate over whether states should execute youthful offenders convicted under capital punishment laws for crimes committed before the age of 18.

No one knows how many appeals will be generated as a result of the court ruling. There are 3,701 inmates on death row now and 2,455 of them are imprisoned in the 20 states that allowed retarded prisoners to be executed. Few of them have been fully evaluated to determine their mental capacity.

In a few cases where inmates have already been classified as retarded, the decision is expected to have an immediate impact. In Nevada, for example, death row prisoner Thomas Nevius could soon have his sentence commuted to life by Gov. Kenny Guinn, according to Guinn general counsel Keith Munro.

"My feeling is the opinion will clearly have an impact on this case," Munro told the Las Vegas Sun.

Besides Nevada, states affected by the Supreme Court ruling are Alabama, California, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Wyoming, Utah and Virginia.

New Hampshire hasn't executed anyone since 1939 and currently has no inmates on death row.

Foes of capital punishment argue that many of the points in the court's ruling on the mentally retarded can be applied as well to the cases of the 83 inmates now on death row who were convicted as minors.

"That's got to be next...The reasoning the Supreme Court laid out in (Thursday's) decision can be applied exactly to the issue of youthful offenders," David Elliott of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty told "We don't know when, but a decision on that is certainly coming."

Texas is preparing to execute two inmates in August who were convicted of crimes committed as minors. Those executions are likely to go forward as scheduled unless the inmates are granted new appeals claiming mental retardation.

The court's ruling, however, will almost certainly delay other scheduled executions in Texas and across the country as many death row inmates renew their appeals based on the latest ruling.

"The remaining 20 states that still allow the execution of mentally retarded people are going to have to allow some sort of procedure for evaluating inmates' claims," says Elliott.


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