Free «The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation» Essay Sample

Since 1976, when the death penalty was returned, around forty mentally defective people were put to death in the United States of America. Moreover, there are many sick people sentenced to death currently waiting for execution. Disability does not allow these people to realize the wrongness of their actions, and some of them do not even understand what they are waiting for in the prison. Notwithstanding that they look like adults, they all have a childish mind. However, twenty five states apply death penalty for mentally defective criminals. Furthermore, there is a list of punishments, which are banned in the country, but execution is not among them (Grant 19).

It is not surprising that executing of mentally defective people faces public resistance. The interrogations revealed that a great number of American citizens are against the death penalty for people with mental retardation including those who support the execution. The law that forbids the execution of mentally sick individuals was passed in thirteen states. Seven states are going to pass it as well. The United States of America is the only democratic country in the world that executes mentally ill or defective people (Gross 56). First of all, such laws are at variance with basic Human Rights, which consider death to be a violation of the right to life, especially if it is applied to the individuals who suffer from mental retardation.

Many people, who support the death penalty and consider it necessary in some cases, state that it loses its initial meaning and significance and turns into violence if applied to the mentally defective people. The punishment is to be used in the most serious cases for the crimes committed deliberately and with cruelty.  However, the actions of mentally disabled people cannot be considered as deliberate. They cannot live a full-fledged life because of their incurable disease. Such people have a lot of problems with making decisions, recollection, concentration, and comprehension of the outcomes (Gross 56).

However, many people do not agree with this point of view, as they consider justice more important and do not consider mental retardation as a justifying factor. The given paper will discuss the pros and cons of this contradicting issue and provide recommendations for its resolution.


A mentally disabled person can commit a violent crime. However, he or she is not capable of a thought-over, premeditated violence. Thus, there is no need to execute such people in order to protect the society from them. The following reasons for abolition of the laws permitting the execution of people with mental retardation are the following:

- The ultimate punishment looks excessively cruel if to consider the peculiarities of mentally ill people and their incapability to be responsible for their actions. In this case, it cannot fulfill its function of revenge for crime.

- There is no guarantee that the executions of mentally ill people will prevent others from committing offences. Sick people cannot be influenced, and their illness does not let them foresee the possible consequences. At the same time, not putting mentally disabled individuals to death would never make it less dreadful for the healthy criminals;

- To guarantee the public security, it is enough to keep sick people in the special establishments. Therefore, the death punishment is not necessary (Switzky n.pag.).

The uncertainty, wrongness and high possibility of mistake have already been widely discussed by the opponents of the death penalty. It is not difficult to determine the group of people, who are under the risk of mistake (Switzky n.pag.). The destiny of the offender is highly dependent on his barrister. However, mentally retarded individuals do not usually have enough money to pay to a good layer. Therefore, they are usually given to the barrister, who is not well-qualified or does not want to do a good job for free. That is why, mentally ill people are usually brought in a verdict of guilty.

Mentally ill criminals cannot help the attorney defend themselves, even if they are really innocent. On the contrary, even if they have a good defender, they can unwittingly make their situation worse by an improper testimony that can aggravate the prosecution. Mentally retarded people cannot help the lawyer reconstitute the picture of the crime. Sometimes, an improper behavior of the disabled criminals in the courtroom may create an undesirable impression upon the jury.

The U.S. Constitution has a list of cruel punishments, which are not to be applied. They include penalties unequal to the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s moral responsibility. In the middle of 1980s, the Supreme Court stated that putting people with mental retardation to death was at variance with Constitution. It was not possible for them to fully understand the wrongness of their actions and the reasons for punishing (Gross 56).

In the same way, at the end of 1980s, the Supreme Court stated that the death penalty must not be applied to the individuals under the age of sixteen. It was enacted that very young people are not able to control their actions properly due to the high emotions, influence, and less comprehension of the basic ethical principles. Therefore, they must not be put to death.


In spite of the arguments provided by the opponent, in reality, for example in the case of 1989, the court did not defend mentally disabled criminals. By 1989, very few states had the laws, which prohibited application of the ultimate punishment to sick individuals. Legislation of other states considered mental retardation as insufficient justification for the criminals and assumed application of the death penalty to mentally disabled individuals.

In reality, the ultimate punishment is applied to mentally defective people even if their illness is considered to be a justifying aspect. Prosecutors dealing with a serious violence usually ask for the ultimate punishment, and mental disability of an offender is usually not taken into account. While some lawyers just do not know enough about the nature of illness and peculiarities of the sick people’s brain, most of them simply do not consider this justifying, especially in the very serious cases.  Juries usually agree with a prosecution and consider death penalty to be proper, even if mental retardation is present.

The supporters of the death penalty and justice consider such actions appropriate. However, if to justify the fact that mentally sick people have a childish mind, it seems not right. On the other hand, consciousness is already present with a three-year-old child, and the basic ethical principles are already explained to him. Therefore, a childish mind and emotional age (under sixteen years old) cannot be considered as justifying factors in case of a cruel murder or several murders. Moreover, all the serial killers are usually acknowledged as people with a certain degree of mental disorder. In addition, all of them represent a real threat and must be sentenced to death in most cases. Their health condition is not usually taken into consideration.  David Anderson states:

While jurists and criminologists over the course of time have worked with different theories of justice - every time has had its theory and its emphasis - one reality is remaining and never disappearing from the vast crowd, and that is justice” (Anderson n.pag.).

At all times and in all places, fairness remains the main concern. If people face unfairness, they start to defend justice. The rules of fairness live inside every person, and they must take control over one’s actions. Otherwise, the world will be destroyed.  The court has to teach people justice and everything should be done in order to prevent it (Levy n.pag.).

Fairness must be valued and appreciated in the courtroom. It is clear that ultimate punishment represents the only completely fair punishment for the cruel murderer with no alternatives, no matter if he is sick or healthy (Anderson n.pag.).


The issue of death penalty application to mentally sick people is very contradictory. If to consider the arguments of both opponents and supporters, all of them seem right. The ultimate punishment is a very cruel measure to be applied to sick people who do not understand the wrongness of their actions (Gross 56.). On the other hand, if they are so sick that cannot understand that it is not allowed to kill other people, they must be isolated. However, if they are not, it means that they are not so dangerous and must comprehend one of the main moral principles of humans, which is “not to kill”. Moreover, even if a person commits a murder for the first time, he can do that again. Therefore, the right way to prevent it is to destroy the murderer.

 It is very difficult to decide whether it is fair to execute mentally sick people or not. Actually, it is almost impossible to do this. The only possible solution that can be offered in this situation is to analyze each case separately and carefully. The opportunity to apply death penalty or abolish it should not be excluded. In order to make a right decision, it is necessary to:

- learn the characteristics of each mentally disabled offender carefully;

- respect human rights, especially the right to life;

- consider the seriousness of the crime committed by a sick person;

- define the degree of one’s mental retardation by the well-qualified and experienced professionals (Levy n.pag.).

Certainly, it is horrible, when innocent person is sentenced to death. It is related not only to mentally disabled people, but also to the healthy individuals who are very often mistakenly executed instead of the real criminals. Therefore, this issue must be considered and thoroughly investigated. As for the death penalty, it must not be applied, if the fault of the individual is not completely proved.


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