Independent news has never been so important.

Did you know that you can get Democracy Now! delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our Daily News Digest today! Don't worry, we'll never share or sell your information.

The Supreme Court Rules Executing Mentally Retarded Is “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”

Media Options

A divided Supreme Court reversed course Thursday and ruled that executing mentally retarded people is unconstitutionally cruel, giving scores of inmates on death row the possibility of a reprieve.

The court ruled in favor of a Virginia inmate, Daryl Renard Atkins, who was convicted and sentenced to death for a 1996 robbery and murder. According to Atkins’ lawyers, he has an IQ of 59. The ruling applies to people with an IQ of 70 or lower.

The decision comes at a time when two pro-death penalty governors have declared a moratorium on executions, and over 100 innocent people have been exonerated from death row.

There are currently over 3,700 people on death row in the US.

Over the past decade and a half, eighteen states have prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded. Georgia was one of the first two states to change its law, after public outrage at the controversial execution of Jerome Bowden, a mentally disabled man. Bowden had an IQ of 59 at age 14, and an estimated IQ of 65 when he was executed at age 34.

Earlier in the program we heard the last words of Jerome Bowden, a mentally disabled man who was electrocuted in June 1986. Bowden was found guilty of the burglary, armed robbery, aggravated assault, and murder of two women for whom he was doing yard work. Before he was electrocuted, he gave a final statement from his death cell. His words were recorded by SoundPortraits Productions, as part of their project “The Execution Tapes.”


  • Reverend Carol Pickett, who was death chaplain at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas for 16 years. He was chaplain for 95 executions and counseled some mentally retarded people before they were put to death.


  • Jerome Bowden, a mentally disabled man with an IQ of about 65, who was electrocuted in June 1986. This is the final statement recorded in his death cell.

Related link:


  • Beyond A Dark Cloud–Garnet Silk.

Related Story

StoryJul 28, 2021Workers Beg Joe Manchin to Save West Virginia Pharma Plant as His Daughter Walks Away with $31M
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation