High Court finds execution of mentally retarded unconstitutional

By Kathy Helms-Hughes


   The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that executing mentally retarded individuals is cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both federal and state constitutions.
   Addressing the issue for the first time, Justice Riley Anderson wrote in the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice Frank Drowota and Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr.: "We conclude that there is compelling evidence that the execution of mentally retarded individuals violates the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society both nationally and in the State of Tennessee.
   "We also have determined that the execution of any mentally retarded individuals, who by definition have significantly sub-average intelligence functioning and deficits in adaptive behavior is grossly disproportionate and serves no valid penological purpose."
   The high court decision stems from an appeal by Heck Van Tran, who was sentenced to death in 1987 after being convicted of three counts of felony murder. The deaths occurred during the robbery of a Memphis restaurant.
   The court upheld the convictions and death sentence following Van Tran's direct appeal in 1993 and post-conviction appeal in 1999. Van Tran filed a motion to reopen the post-conviction case, however, claiming he had new evidence that his IQ is below 70 and that his execution would violate Tennessee law because he is mentally retarded.
   State law prohibits the execution of mentally retarded individuals, defining those as persons with significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning as evidenced by a functional intelligence quotient of 70 or below and deficits in adaptive behavior. The statute also says mental retardation must have been manifested before age 18.
   The court unanimously agreed that the law does not apply to defendants sentenced before July 1, 1990, when the law took effect, because the statute did not contain precise language making it retroactive. However, a majority of the court determined that the issue raised by Van Tran had obvious constitutional implications and held that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution prohibit executing mentally retarded individuals.
   Anderson, Drowota and Birch wrote that although mentally retarded individuals may be convicted and sentenced for a criminal offense, their execution is cruel and unusual punishment.
   Justice William M. Barker and Justice Janice M. Holder, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that the court could not properly address the merits of Van Tran's constitutional claim because Van Tran was unable to reopen his post-conviction petition under Tennessee's Post-Conviction Procedure Act. Barker said Van Tran's lower score on a revised IQ test did not show that he was "actually innocent" of the murders and that though the state Constitution bars the execution of a mentally retarded person, it is only when the defendant's mental condition affects his cognitive or moral capacities.
   Barker and Holder believe the execution should proceed because Van Tran never claimed that his alleged mental retardation affected his ability to understand what would happen if he pulled the trigger of a loaded pistol; that it affected his ability to understand it was morally wrong to commit murder; or that it affected his ability to behave in a lawful manner.