WASHINGTON, D.C., JUNE 25, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. Supreme Court decision abolishing capital punishment for the mentally handicapped was applauded by the U.S. bishops´ conference.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, on behalf of the U.S. episcopal conference, told Vatican Radio that it is “an important step in the struggle against the death penalty, so the bishops are pleased with this decision.”
“The court has established that mentally handicapped criminals are less guilty than other criminals. It was something obvious,” she added.
The decision will oblige the 20 states that still allow the execution of the mentally retarded to change their laws.
Individuals with an IQ lower than 70 and who have limitations in their ability to communicate or care for themselves are generally considered mentally retarded.
The number of mentally retarded convicts on death row is not known. Father Dale Rechenella, the Catholic chaplain for death row convicts in Florida, guesses that they might comprise 10% of those awaiting capital punishment.
He said the Supreme Court´s decision recognizes that the retarded are not culpable for their actions.
“Culpability is one of the principal factors in opposition to the execution of the mentally handicapped,” Father Rechenella said. “I see it with many retarded men here, in Florida´s death row. They are very infantile and they are used a lot, or they can be easily led to confess or make false statements to make others happy.”
“This is a very important fact: The mentally handicapped run a very high risk of being unjustly accused,” he contended.
The court left it up to the states to develop “appropriate ways” to apply the new ban. Sister Walsh emphasized that the U.S. episcopate will continue in its efforts to abolish the death penalty altogether, “considering, above all, concern for the mistakes made.”
“We have had criminals on death row who were innocent,” Sister Walsh continued. “The fact that one can come so close to the execution of an innocent should make the country reflect.”
She added that the “other concern refers to how capital punishment denigrates us as a society. As the Holy Father has said, there is no need for capital punishment in our time. We can keep dangerous persons away from society without killing them.”