They may know what they have done and freely confess to it, but a true understanding of what they have done is not really present.
It is somewhat like the difference between knowing that jumping off the roof and hitting the ground will hurt, and actually making the jump and understanding what it feels like to hit the ground that hard from 10 or 15 feet up. The concept of what it really means to take another human being's life is not there; nor is the concept of being executed by the state for the taking of that life.
Third, the person must have an IQ that is significantly below average. There are quite a few people out there who do not have an 'average' intelligence score, (around 100 to 110, as previously mentioned), but that does not make them mentally retarded to the point that their reasoning and abilities are significantly impaired. Many people with IQ's between 70 and 100 can still function fairly well and take care of themselves. Those with IQ's that are only slightly below average can often hold jobs, live on their own, raise families, and do all of the things that someone with 'normal' abilities would be able to do.
Severe mental retardation is usually considered to be present when someone has an IQ of 70 or below, but the actual IQ can vary a bit depending on the type of IQ test the person is given, what time of day they are given the test, if they are rested, etc. All of those things affect the final score on the IQ test, and could affect the decision of a judge and/or jury in a murder trial where the death penalty was being considered by the prosecution as a viable sentencing option (American, 2002).
Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, at least 35 people out of those executed have been mentally retarded. No one knows how many more mentally retarded people may be on death row currently, since the IQ test is not a standard test given to death row inmates. Some experts think the number could be between two and three hundred, but that is just an estimate. There is no concrete evidence to support that statement. However, the probability that at least some of the people who are currently on death row are mentally retarded is very high, simply because there are quite a few people on death row. Logic says that a percentage of them, just like in society, will have mental retardation to some degree; some of them severe (Death, 2002).
Recent polls and surveys show that a large majority of the American public, even those who believe in the death penalty for violent crimes, oppose the execution of the mentally retarded for any crime. The trend toward the abandonment of the death penalty for mentally retarded individuals is growing, but it could be some time before all of the people on death row are tested to determine their IQ. It could be even longer before those with low IQ's are given new trials and other options for the rest of their life. Now their only option is to live on death row until the state decides to execute them.
Even the AAMR thinks that mentally retarded people who commit violent crimes should be punished, as do most people in America. The idea of punishment is not the issue, but the idea of what kind of punishment is. People who cannot understand what kind of punishment will be inflicted on them, or why they are being punished in this way, should not be subjected to the death penalty. The AAMR holds this view, and so does much of the American public. Sadly, this has not changed the hardened hearts of lawmakers.
It is a sad reflection on society to see children and young adults grow up in prison, only to be executed when they are old enough. They spend years waiting for the slaughter, and some, like the Arkansas man, do not even realize what is going to be happening to them when they are old enough, or when the state determines that they are guilty and decides that the death penalty is the right answer.
It is really tragic to see mentally impaired individuals who do not even understand what they did wrong, or do not understand that they are going to be killed for their crimes, taken to the electric chair or given a lethal injection, instead of being given the help that they need to overcome or cope with their mental problems.
Another argument against the death penalty is the idea that everyone makes mistakes, individuals and governments alike. People have been executed, and later our justice system has discovered that those people were innocent. If the court system takes a man and puts him in prison for life, and during his lifetime discovers his innocence, he can be released and his rights returned to him. It is sad to see a man lose so much of his life while he is locked up in prison, but when he is freed at least he has a life to go back to. If he has been executed, what can be done? Somehow an apology is just not enough, and society now has two grieving families instead of just one.
The first grieving family, that of the crime victim, often says that the execution of the alleged criminal does not make them feel better or bring closure to their lives. It does not change what has happened or bring back the person they loved. No one has made a better statement of these feelings than Marietta Jaegar whose seven-year-old daughter, Susie, was kidnapped and brutally murdered. Ms. Jaegar said, "In my case, my own daughter was such a gift of joy and sweetness and beauty that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate and profane the goodness of her life" (Ganda, 1998).
Ms. Jaegar makes a strong case for the families of victims everywhere. While it is very likely that some people will feel better knowing that the person who committed such a violent crime against someone they loved is dead, most families find the process of waiting for an execution makes them feel vulgar and dirty. There is something almost shameful to many of them about waiting for someone to die, and being allowed in some cases to watch it happen can only make that worse.
Ms. Jaegar and many others like her also believe that it degrades the victim to have someone killed in connection with their name, like Susie's killer would have been had Ms. Jaegar and her attorneys pushed for the death penalty. She chose instead to pick up the pieces of her life and go on. By not asking for her daughter's killer to be murdered she has preserved in her mind the best and most beautiful things about her daughter's life, and that is what she dwells on when times are hard for her.
The second grieving family, that of the person who was wrongly executed, is now faced with feelings of despair over the lost life of their loved one. Knowing that their loved one was innocent and not being able to prove it in time must take a horrible toll on a human being, and no one knows that better than the people who have received an "I'm sorry" from their local government because their loved one, who was killed in the name of justice, had been posthumously found to be innocent of the crime.
With the new testing and DNA evidence available to crime technicians there have been several people recently who have been released from prison, some after long stays, because the DNA evidence has determined that they really did not commit the crime that they were accused of. How many more of these people are in the prison system? How many on death row, just waiting for their turn? How many have the state governments and the federal government already killed?
There is no real way to know how many innocent people have been killed in the name of justice, but it is certain that there have been some. Even the government and the court system makes mistakes, and anyone who looks guilty and does not have an alibi, especially if they are non-white and poor, is fair game for lawyers, judges, and police. The death penalty preys upon the poor, the black or Hispanic, the mentally impaired, and the children of our society. Some of these groups should not be executed because of age or mental status. The others should not be executed either, for a bigger reason. They are human beings, and no human being deserves to be killed by his own government.
When one looks at the big picture, it is terrible that society has to live with violent crime, and that people…