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

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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’s 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 U.S.

Over the past decade and a half, 18 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 Sound Portraits Productions as part of their project, “The Execution Tapes.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A divided Supreme Court reversed course on 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’ lawyer, 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 United States.

Over the past decade and a half, 18 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 the age of 34. Earlier in the program, we heard the last words of Jerome Bowden, a mentally disabled man who was electrocuted in June 1986. He 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 Sound Portraits Production as part of their project, “The Execution Tapes.”

JEROME BOWDEN: And the statement that I would like to make is, first, I would like to thank the Lord for giving me the opportunity to make this statement. And I thank the Lord for the chaplain and for all the people of this administration that he has placed into work here. And if my execution is carried out, I know that it will be done by the Lord’s will.

And I just want the people to know that I am not the same person that I was once upon a time, because I was baptized here in 1980, and the old creature was destroyed, and I became a new creature. And I would just like to just ask that people remember me as the Christian, and not as the old Jerome Bowden, because the old Jerome Bowden is no more. The new Jerome Bowden is here, and when he has passed away, he will be remembered as the Christian Jerome Bowden.

And I would just like to thank all the peoples out in the world that have fought so hard to preserve my life. And I have not given up. I might give out, but I cannot give up, because I know that the Lord is still here with me, no matter what may happen. And I would just like to thank the whole entire world and the people that’s in the world, and also the fine people of this administration that I have had the opportunity to come in contact with the time that I have been here, including Chaplain Lavelle [phon.].

And I would just like to say that I’m thankful that Mr. Mirabel [phon.] and all his administration have done whatever they could do to make this thing much more easier for me to deal with, because it is a very hard thing to deal with, and I know it, and they know it. So that’s why that they are still standing close by, to make sure that everything goes according to plan. And I would like to thank [inaudible] correction officers here that have been with me from the time this thing started until now. And with this last statement, I would just like to close out and say God bless Mr. Mirabel and all the administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The last words of Jerome Bowden, when he was — before he was executed in June of 1986.

We’re joined now by the Reverend Carroll 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. He joins us by telephone.

Welcome, Reverend Pickett.

REV. CARROLL PICKETT: Thank you, sir. Thank you.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences as a chaplain there at Huntsville, especially with some of the mentally retarded inmates that you dealt with?

REV. CARROLL PICKETT: Well, when I first started there, we weren’t doing executions, but we had the mentally retarded inmates on our unit. So, I dealt with those who weren’t committed to [inaudible]. But then, in 1982, we began to execute people. We were the first country, state, nation in the world to do lethal injection. And I lived — I was with the first 95 that died by lethal injection. And many of those were mentally retarded, mentally challenged, whatever you want to call it. And they were — I’d say at least 20 of those 95 were — did not understand what was going on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In terms of your work with them, what were you — what did you attempt to do?

REV. CARROLL PICKETT: My main responsibility, according to the warden, was to be with him all day and be their — I guess, their last friend, he called it, and talk to them and explain everything to them so they wouldn’t fight coming out of the cell, they wouldn’t fight getting up on the table. But with those people, with those who were mentally retarded, mentally challenged, it was mainly just listening to what they talk about, all afternoon and all night, particularly the last two hours.

And one of my responsibilities — one of my plans, and which I did on all of them, is that I would explain to them at 10:00 at night, just two hours before they died, what was going to take place, how the needles were going to go in and everything. And some of them never understood what I was talking about. They did not know — they could not comprehend that this was going to kill them. They did not know. They would get — I would get through explaining it to them, and then they would say, “OK, and then when do I go back out to death row?” They just didn’t understand.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what were your feelings about that? And your reaction now to the Supreme Court decision yesterday?

REV. CARROLL PICKETT: I think it’s great. I think the Supreme Court finally did something right. They did it wrong several years ago. Here in Texas, our Legislature last year voted to not execute the mentally ill, and our governor vetoed it. And they were representing the people. The people said to our legislators, “Let’s don’t do this.” You know, these kids, people who have been in prison since they were 17, or committed their crimes when they were 17, or some of them just did not remember the crime at all. And our people — we don’t have polls that are accurate, but they had contacted their legislators in the Legislature. Both houses here in Texas voted to pass a resolution to ask to stop executing the mentally ill. And they did. And then the governor vetoed it. But I’m glad that the Supreme Court did. They reversed themselves from several years ago, because these people do not understand. The law says they must understand what is happening to them. I know that in 1995 even Ted Koppel came down and witnessed an execution. And he was amazed to see that Mario did not comprehend what was taking place. And he visited with him, and he heard his last words, and he watched him die. So, I hope they will keep it this way, even go further.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your feelings about the death penalty, in general, having witnessed so many?

REV. CARROLL PICKETT: Of course, I’ve changed completely. I used to be for it, but I’m totally opposed to it now. It’s not deterring crime anymore, like they claim it has. Like, in Houston, more people are executed from Houston than from anywhere here in Texas. And then, the first week of June, there were 16 murders in Houston, 16 murders, biggest weekend — worst weekend they’ve ever had. It’s not a deterrent. And we’re just killing. We’re killing people. And they’ve put them in prison for years, and by the time they get around to killing them, it’s — they’re not the same person.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: All right, well, I’d like to thank you very much for being with us, the Reverend Carroll Pickett, who was death chaplain at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, for 16 years.

And that does it for today’s show. Democracy Now! is produced by Kris Abrams, Miranda Kennedy, Lizzy Ratner and Michael Yeh. Anthony Sloan is our music maestro and engineer. You can go to our website at www.democracynow.org, and you can mail us at mail@democracynow.org. I’m Juan González. Thanks for listening to another edition of Democracy Now!

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