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Discussion post: The Liebman Study reported that the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system is 68%. With this astounding statistic in mind, do you believe that death penalty rights of appeals should be limited to fast track executions? What are the pros and cons?

US Supreme Court drops death penalty for mentally retarded murderers
he US Supreme Court’s ruling
on June 20 that executing mentally retarded prisoners is unconstitutional, may spare hundreds of
prisoners from execution, said
opponents of the death penalty.
Currently, 38 US states allow capital punishment and 3701 people are
on death row. In the 20 states that
allowed the execution of the mentally retarded 2455 people are on
death row and 5% of this population
may be retarded, suggests Human
Rights Watch.
The ruling was prompted by the
case of Daryl Renard Atkins who in
1999 was sentenced to death for
abducting, robbing, and shooting
eight times Eric Nesbitt, a US airforce airman. Atkins had 16 previous convictions and had an IQ of
59—the average is 100. The jury convicted Atkins despite hearing evidence from a psychologist that he
was retarded (see Lancet 2002; 359:
The Court has now ruled that in
the Atkins case, mental retardation
was central to the case and that “no
one who is even slightly mentally
retarded can have sufficient ‘moral
responsibility to be subjected to
capital punishment for any crime’”.
and deterrence—actually worked.
The main consideration behind
4 days after this landmark decithis case was whether
sion the Court ruled
imposing the death
that juries rather than
Rights were not
penalty was a “cruel
judges must determine
granted to
and unusual punishwhether a criminal is
ment” as prohibited by
sentenced to death.
include this
the eighth amendment
With 800 people on
image in
to the US Constitution.
death row, whose senelectronic
In a similar case in
tences were deterPlease refer to
1989, a state court
mined by judges, the
the printed
ruled that such punishruling has invalidated
this aspect of death
although the accused
penalty law in five
was spared the death
states and many prispenalty for other reaoners may be able to
sons. However at the
appeal their sentences.
time the judge said that A “cruel and unusual
Death penalty oppothe law should be reex- punishment”
nents now hope the
Court will reexamine
states banned such executions.
the death penalty for juvenile murSince then 16 states have banned
derers later this month when it
executions of the retarded and the
examines the case of Kevin
Supreme Court said in its judgeStanford, who raped, robbed, and
ment that a national consensus has
killed a woman when he was 17 years
old. This may be a step to far
Among the reasons behind its
because the Court noted in the
decision, the Court said that the
Atkins judgement that there is no
“diminished capacities” of retarded
national consensus against executoffenders raised “serious questions”
ing juvenile offenders.
about whether the “social purpose”
Haroon Ashraf
of the death penalty—retribution
Controversy over compensation for disabled child in Germany
German doctor who failed to
detect fetal malformations during routine pregnancy ultrasound
examinations has been ordered to
pay compensation to the parents of a
child who was born disabled, in a
ruling by the federal Court in
Karlsruhe, Germany, on June 18.
The Bavarian couple, whose son was
born with severely deformed legs
and no hands or lower arms, sued
the gynaecologist, demanding compensation from her insurance company for the child’s care and for the
mother, who was suicidal.
The Study Commission on Law
and Ethics in Modern Medicine of
the Bundestag has advised against
pre-implantation diagnosis, including the use of such techniques to
screen for disability. Doctor leaders
have also criticised the court’s decision. Otmar Kloiber, from the
German Medical Association (BÄK)
and a member of the Commission
argues: “We’re talking about the
right to life . . . and one cannot
weigh human dignity against depression . . . we have a society which
increasingly rejects disabled life per
se. And therein lies a great problem
because we are beginning to decide
what constitutes worthy and unworthy life”.
The couple’s lawyer, Hans
Klingelhöffer, says: “Had the doctor
conducted an adequate examination, she would have seen that the
child was not going to be healthy
and would have been obliged to
share this information with the parents . . . Had they known in advance
that the birth of the child would
constitute a serious burden on the
mother’s health with the risk of
depression they would have been
able to terminate the pregnancy.”
Kloiber maintained that the issues
of liability and selection have been
become dangerously intertwined,
“but a doctor should in no case be
liable for a disabled life who was
born . . . If we accept the disabled as
humans, nobody can be liable . . . In
the Commission we have stated that
we are completely against the concept of a child being regarded as an
injury or liability”.
Klingelhöffer rejects this notion:
“the damage is not the child himself
THE LANCET • Vol 359 • June 29, 2002 • www.thelancet.com
but rather the financial requirements
arising from the child’s existence . . . When a women has a
child despite the man having had a
vasectomy, it is the doctor’s
mistake—that is the assumption.
Then it is also down to the doctor to
pay the maintenance costs. One can
argue about whether this law is
right—but to change it is the task of
parliament, not the courts.”
Frank Ulrich Montgomery, head
of the hospital doctors association
Marburger Bund, echoed the BÄK’s
concerns and pointed to the damage
done to the credibility of the medical
profession: “We must ask ourselves
how our meticulously developed primary care system could come to
this. Was it inexperience or sloppiness? Why was the complex but
obviously recognisable malformation
not recognised despite the examination? Or has a doctor not passed on
their knowledge, playing God to
avoid a future abortion. Either
explanation would be equally dire”,
he says.
Claudia Orellana
For personal use. Only reproduce with permission from The Lancet Publishing Group.
Behavioral Sciences and the Law
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
Published online 14 December 2003 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/bsl.565
Death Penalty Support for
Special Offender Populations of
Legally Convicted Murderers:
Juveniles, the Mentally
Retarded, and the Mentally
Denise Paquette Boots, M.A.,
Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D.,* and
John K. Cochran, Ph.D.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently re-examined the constitutionality of the death penalty in the context of two of
three special offender populations of murderers (juveniles,
mentally retarded, and mentally incompetent). The Court
reaffirmed the imposition of the death penalty for juveniles
16 and 17, while reversing itself on the mentally retarded.
In reaching its decision, the Court relied on society’s
‘‘evolving standards of decency.’’ Using Likert-type items,
this study is the first to have prospective jurors assess
support for the death penalty for these specific offender
groups. The public’s support for the execution of each of
the groups is then compared with existing case law. Descriptive statistics and regression analyses indicate that, as
expected, the levels of support for the applicability of capital
punishment to the various special offender populations are
much lower than that for the general adult offender. Moreover, these findings are congruent with the holdings of the
Court with one notable exception: a slight majority of
respondents supported executing the mentally incompetent. Reasons for the public’s apparent departure from the
Supreme Court holding prohibiting the execution of mentally incompetent convicted murderers are discussed. The
Court’s continued role in protecting marginalized populations from ‘‘cruel and unusual punishment’’ is explored in
the context of strong public sentiment demanding justice
and finality despite changes in offenders’ mental capacity.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
*Correspondence to: Kathleen M. Heide, University of South Florida, Department of Criminology, 4202
E. Fowler Avenue, SOC 107, Tampa, FL 33620, U.S.A. E-mail: kheide@cas.usf.edu
The authors wish to thank the State Attorney, Public Defender, judges, court personnel, and jury pool
members of the 13th Judicial District of the State of Florida (Hillsborough County) for their cooperation
and participation in this study. They also wish to thank Dr. Christine S. Sellers for her helpful comments
and suggestions on this work.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
D. P. Boots et al.
In June of 2002, the United States Supreme Court nullified with its own precedent
when it readdressed the issue of executing the mentally retarded and held in Atkins
v. Virginia that the execution of the mentally retarded had become so ‘‘uncommon’’
(p. 316) as to render it cruel and unusual punishment. The Court relied primarily
upon legislative actions in concluding that societal standards had evolved to the
point where it was necessary to change its previous rulings on the matter. As such,
Atkins effectively overturned the previous holding in Penry v. Lynaugh (1989) that
had denied mentally retarded offenders categorical protection from execution.
Since its decision in Atkins, the Court has continued to address the constitutionality of the death penalty toward other special offender groups. In April of 2003, the
Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty for juvenile murderers
when it overturned the stay of Scott Allen Hain and allowed his execution in
Oklahoma for the 1987 burning deaths of two people (Mullin v. Hain, 2003). The
5–4 vote clearly reflected the court’s bitter division over using capital punishment
against juvenile murderers. This ruling, in contrast to the recent one on mentally
retarded killers, upheld the precedents of past holdings on the juvenile death
penalty. In Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Court relied upon the ‘‘evolving
standards of decency’’ test to rule 5–4 that the death sentence of a 15-year-old was
unconstitutional. The Court observed that the execution of ‘‘a 15-year-old offender
is now generally abhorrent to the conscience of the community’’ (1988, p. 832).
After examining the legislative statutes and public opinion research on the issue, the
majority did not feel enough consensus existed to support the execution of society’s
youngest offenders. Consequently, the Court restricted the application of the death
penalty toward juveniles less than 16 years of age absent a state law specifically
legislating a younger age for death eligibility.
One year later, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), the Court revisited the issue of a
juvenile death penalty for juveniles age 16 and older. In affirming capital punishment
for older juveniles, the majority again employed the evolving standards test first
introduced in Trop v. Dulles (1958). The Court found no proof of the existence of a
national consensus that forbid the imposition of the death penalty on 16- and
17-year-olds. Moreover, the majority rejected all indices of societal consensus other
than the legislative record for determining the ‘‘evolving standards of decency.’’
According to the Court, ‘‘a revised national consensus so broad, so clear, and so
enduring as to justify a permanent prohibition upon all units of democratic government must appear in the operative acts (laws and the application of laws) that the
people have approved’’ (1989, p. 377). In other words, if public consensus existed for
a permanent abolition of capital punishment for juveniles over 16 years of age, state
and federal laws should reflect this sentiment. The majority then cited that, of the
37 states that permitted capital punishment at that time, only 15 declined to execute
16-year-olds and only 12 prohibited the execution of 17-year-olds.
Thus, the Court’s recent ruling in Mullin v. Hain (2003) has upheld the
imposition of the death penalty for juveniles 16 years of age or older previously
set forth in Stanford. The Court stated the importance of the offender’s level of
mental and emotional development in addition to the offender’s chronological age.
Similar issues regarding the offender’s mental competency and ultimate culpability
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
Death penalty support
were vital to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding the constitutionality of
the death penalty for both the mentally retarded (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and the
mentally incompetent (Ford v. Wainwright, 1986), the third special offender
population that the Court has addressed.
In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the Court ruled that those diagnosed as mentally
incompetent after their conviction are to be protected from execution. The Court
did not specify the precise criteria to be used to determine competency to be
executed (Cunningham and Goldstein, 2003). The Court did note that that most
states have interpreted incompetency at this stage to mean that the offender has
become severely mentally ill to the point that s/he does not understand the nature of
the punishment or the reason for the imposition of the death sentence. The Court
recognized, however, that ‘‘[a] number of States have more rigorous standards’’
(pp. 421–422). Some, for example, follow ‘‘Blackstone’s view that a defendant
cannot be executed unless he is able to assist in his own defense’’ (note, 3, p. 422).
Mental incompetency is often associated with psychosis. Incompetency, unlike
psychosis, however, is a legal concept and is determined by a judge typically
following evaluation from medical and/or mental health professionals. The Court
regarded the fact that no state in the Union permitted these executions as proof that
steps had been taken to protect the dignity of society by refusing to execute someone
who, from the standpoint of ‘‘a constitutional minimum’’ (p. 422), is incapable of
understanding the punishment or why they are being denied the fundamental right
to life. The Court continued that ‘‘such an execution simply offends humanity’’
(p. 409) and the ‘‘evolving standards of decency’’ that sustain our country (p. 407).
To execute an individual who is ‘‘unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer
and why they are to suffer’’ (p. 422) serves no state interests, deters no one, and is,
therefore, cruel and unusual punishment for the offender.
The continued application of capital punishment to these special offender
populations continues to be a source of controversy and debate within the Court
and across the United States. The opinions of the Court are examined within the
context of the ‘‘evolving standards of decency’’ test developed and employed by the
Supreme Court for determining whether or not a criminal sanction is excessive and,
therefore, constitutionally void under the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and
unusual punishments (Trop v. Dulles, 1958, p. 101). The ‘‘evolving standards of
decency’’ test attempts to gauge the level of societal consensus on Eight Amendment
issues such as the death penalty.
As the Court noted, ‘‘the Clause forbidding cruel and unusual punishments is not
fastened to the obsolete but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes
enlightened by a humane justice’’ (Weems v. United States, 1910, p. 378). As
such, the Court continues to look to the indices of societal standards, including
legislation, prosecutorial and jury discretion, and public opinion, to determine how
public sentiment has evolved. Of these indices, the Court has primarily relied upon
legislative records. An argument can be made that the political and partisan
atmosphere of legislative statehouses, however, may not accurately reflect public
opinion. Public opinion polls, on the other hand, offer real-time measurement of
public attitudes and may offer insight into how attitudes are ‘‘evolving.’’ Toward
this end, the present study addresses public opinion toward capital punishment for
juvenile, mentally retarded, and mentally incompetent offenders.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
D. P. Boots et al.
Most research efforts on public opinion regarding capital punishment have been
concentrated in three areas: (i) the degree of support for the penalty in general; (ii)
changing trends in this support and variability in the level of support across major
socio-demographic sub-groups; and (iii) reasons why levels of support may vary.
Only recently have these research efforts examined the level of support for special
offender populations. To date, several research efforts have focused on death
penalty support for juvenile offenders and a few have examined public attitudes
towards mentally retarded offenders. None, however, have looked at the public’s
beliefs regarding the suitability of sentencing mentally incompetent offenders to
Levels of public support for a juvenile death penalty have varied over time and
across polls. Ellsworth and Gross (1994) report that in 1936 approximately
28 per cent supported a juvenile death penalty, by 1953 this level had dropped to
19 per cent, and by 1957 it had dropped even further to only 11 per cent. Bohm
(1998, 1999) reported that by 1965, while support for capital punishment in general
had dropped to an all-time low of 42 per cent, support for a juvenile death penalty
had risen to 21 per cent. No additional polls regarding a juvenile death penalty were
taken until 1988, when 44 per cent of those polled indicated that they were in favor
of the death penalty for juvenile offenders. By the next year 57 per cent reported that
they were in favor of capital punishment for juvenile offenders 16 or 17 years of age
(Ellsworth & Gross, 1994).
In contrast, Skovron, Scott, and Cullen (1989) found that only 25 to 30 per cent
of the respondents from a sample of two mid-west American cities supported the
death penalty for a 14-year-old offender. In the same year, Finkel, Hughes, Smith,
and Huriabell (1989) examined the level of death penalty support for juvenile
offenders of different ages. They found that approximately 25 per cent of their
‘‘death-qualified’’ respondents supported the execution of juvenile offenders between the ages of 13 and 15 and that only 35 per cent were in favor of the execution
of juvenile offenders between the ages of 16 and 18. Notwithstanding the substantial
variability in the level of support for a juvenile death penalty, these studies nonetheless consistently reveal that a substantial majority of the public since the mid1930s has opposed the imposition of capital punishment upon juvenile offenders.
These findings are consistent with the Court’s ruling in Thompson, which disallowed
the execution of juvenile offenders under 16 years of age. They are, however,
inconsistent with the holding in Stanford where the Court permitted the execution of
juvenile offenders 16 or older.
Less research is available in the extant literature on public support for the
execution of the mentally retarded. In the years following the Penry decision,
however, available data have consistently found the American public opposed the
execution of the mentally retarded. In a 1988 Harris poll, only 21 per cent of those
surveyed favored the death penalty for the mentally retarded. Polls conducted in
1989 showed that only 27 per cent were supportive of executing mentally retarded
offenders (Ellsworth & Gross, 1994). Perske (1991) found on the morning the Penry
decision was announced that 70 per cent of Americans were opposed to the
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
Death penalty support
execution of the mentally retarded. Similarly, almost three-quarters of Indiana state
legislators were in favor of prohibiting the death penalty from being imposed upon
this population (Sandys & McGarrell, 1994). A 1995 poll by Princeton Survey
Research Associates indicated that a mere nine per cent of those surveyed were
willing to execute a mentally retarded murder (Gross, 1998). Furthermore, no
known research has assessed the degree of public support for the execution of the
mentally incompetent.
In light of the importance and timeliness of this topic, and given the limited data
available on public attitudes toward the death penalty for all three of these special
offender populations, further research is clearly warranted. What is public sentiment
toward executing juvenile, mentally retarded, and mentally incompetent offenders?
Do societal standards concur with existing Supreme Court capital punishment
decisions regarding these offender populations? With these questions in mind, the
present study is the first one to examine public attitudes toward the death penalty for
all three special offender populations simultaneously and to compare them to
Supreme Court case law. Toward this end, the next section describes the research
design and methodology of this study.
The data for this study were obtained from jury pool surveys administered during
the Winter of 2000 in Hillsborough County (Tampa), Florida. Jury pool access was
granted by the head of judges, the State Attorney and Public Defender Offices in an
effort to gauge current death penalty sentiment. Three days of data collection
yielded a total of 697 completed, usable questionnaires out of 872 members serving
in the jury pool, yielding a response rate of 80 per cent. The jury pools in Florida
consist of a random selection of residents 18 years of age and older who possess a
valid state driver’s license or state identification card. Despite any shortcomings
related to statutory exclusions for those under eighteen years of age, protected
populations, or law enforcement personnel, the jury pool offers social scientists a
cost-effective, convenient, accessible, and fairly representative sample of the local
community (Farnworth, Bennett, & West, 1996). According to 1990 Census data,
this jury pool sample of participants in this study closely resembles the demographic
characteristics of Hillsborough County with two exceptions: potential jurors had a
slightly higher household income and were better educated.
The jury pool sample utilized in this study had several advantages over other
sampling strategies. First, potential jurors were called upon to perform a civic duty
and reported early in the morning with no guarantee that they would be selected for
voir dire during the course of the day. Accordingly, these individuals had time to
answer a detailed questionnaire without interruption. Moreover, in doing so, these
jurors were allowed to symbolically participate in the process of criminal justice, to
represent their community, and to express their personal beliefs and opinions on
important legal issues. These structural characteristics were likely to be partly
responsible for the unusually high response rate obtained and facilitated the
development of a comprehensive survey instrument to assess public attitudes toward
crime and justice-related issues, particularly capital punishment.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
D. P. Boots et al.
Death Penalty Support Measures
This study employed a series of single-item Likert-type statements regarding the
appropriateness of capital punishment for a variety of offender types, each representing a special offender population. Each respondent was asked to indicate how
strongly he or she agreed or disagreed with the following five statements: ‘‘Generally
speaking, I support the death penalty for adults legally convicted of murder,’’
‘‘ . . . for juveniles over sixteen years of age who are legally convicted of murder,’’
‘‘ . . . for juvenile 15 years and younger who are legally convicted of murder,’’ ‘‘ . . . for
adults who are mentally retarded and are legally convicted of murder,’’ and ‘‘ . . . for
adults who were legally convicted of murder but who later become mentally
incompetent (in other words, those who do not understand the nature of their
punishment any longer and/or are unable to assist in their own defense).’’ For each
statement, response options and metrics ranged from 1, strongly disagree, to 4,
strongly agree. For the purposes of the current study, however, each of these five
items were dichotomized to distinguish those who support capital punishment from
those who do not (0, disagree or strongly disagree; 1, agree or strongly agree) for the
bivariate and multivariate analyses that follow.
Independent Variables
Previous research on death penalty sentiments has shown that several sociodemographic and other respondent characteristics are consistently associated with
support for capital punishment. These variables, which were included in the present
study, consisted of age (Bohm, 1991, 1998), gender (Bohm, 1991, 1998; Moore,
1994), race/ethnicity (Bohm, 1991, 1998; Young, 1991), level of education (Bohm,
1991, 1998; Moore, 1994), income (Bohm, 1991, 1998; Zeisel & Gallup, 1989),
religious affiliation and religiosity (Grasmick, Cochran, Bursik, & Kimpel, 1993), political party and/or ideology (Bedau, 1997; Fox, Radelet, & Bonsteel, 1991), southern
residency or heritage (Bohm, 1991, 1998; Borg, 1997), and both fear of violent crime
and violent crime victimization experience (Borg, 1997; Thomas & Foster, 1975).
Respondent’s age was coded in years. Gender was a dummy variable (0, female; 1,
male). Race/ethnicity was also dummy coded for blacks and Hispanics, with whites as
the omitted or reference category and members of all other racial groups omitted
from the analysis. Respondent’s level of educational attainment was measured on an
eight-point ordinal scale: 1, grade school, to 8, advanced degree. Annual household
income was measured along a ten-point ordinal scale: 1, under $10,000, to 10,
$150,000 or higher. Respondents were asked to indicate their religious affiliation,
and those who indicated Protestant were also asked to indicate their denomination.
From these responses a single dichotomous variable was constructed to distinguish
Protestant fundamentalists from all others based upon the coding scheme developed
for the NORC General Social Survey by Tom Smith (1990).
Political ideology was measured on a six point scale where respondents
rated themselves from 1, very liberal, to 6, very conservative, on social and political
views. Southern heritage was measured by a single dummy variable based upon
response to a questions that asked ‘‘in what region of the country did you grow up?’’
(0, non-southern; 1, southern). Finally, respondents were asked whether they had
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
Death penalty support
been the victims of a violent crime within the past twelve months (0, no; 1, yes) and
how afraid they were of being the victim of a violent crime (1, not at all afraid, to 4,
very afraid).
Analytic Plan
This study was designed to investigate the level of death penalty public support for
juvenile, mentally incompetent, and mentally retarded offenders and then compare
these levels with the existing Supreme Court decision regarding society’s evolving
standards and the legality of capital punishment. Accordingly, attention focused
upon the level of public support for the application of the death penalty to each of
these special offender populations. The initial purpose, therefore, was to assess the
extent to which Supreme Court rulings are consistent with a direct and objective
indicator of public sentiment.
The analysis continued by examining the degree of consensus or sub-group
agreement in the level of support for/opposition to capital punishment for each
offender group by examining the statistical associations between support levels and a
number of respondent socio-demographic and other characteristics via bi-serial
correlations and logistic regression models. Thus the analytic plan was designed to
examine both the distributions and conditional distributions of death penalty
support in order to directly assess the ‘‘evolving standards of decency.’’ Evidence
suggesting that the standards of decency have evolved away from the application of
capital punishment to any of these special offender populations was evident either
where a majority opposed capital punishment or where societal consensus across
demographic sub-groups was lacking.
As depicted in Table 1, the level of support for capital punishment varied
dramatically depending on the characteristics of the offender. That is, 83.4 per cent
of the respondents indicated that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the
statement ‘‘Generally speaking, I support the death penalty for adults legally
convicted of murder.’’
As expected, the levels of support for the applicability of capital punishment to
the various special offender populations was much lower than that for the general
adult offender. For instance, 63.5 per cent of our respondents supported the use of
Table 1. Support for capital punishment for offender types (N ¼ 697)
Per cent support
Offender types
Juveniles 16
Juveniles 15
Mentally retarded
Mentally incompetent
SA, strongly agree; A, agree; D, disagree; SD, strongly disagree.
Copyright # 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Behav. Sci. Law 22: 223–238 (2004)
D. P. Boots et al.
capital punishment for juveniles 16 years of age or older and legally convicted of
murder; 34.9 per cent would also extend this penalty to juveniles 15 years and
younger. Moreover, these findings indicate that the standards of decency with
regard to the juvenile death penalty have, indeed, evolved in a manner consistent
with the Supreme Court’s rulings.
With respect to the mentally retarded, these data also find congruence between
the Court’s prohibition on executions per Atkins and public sentiment. That is,
these data show that only 29 per cent of respondents surveyed either strongly agreed
or agreed to executing the mentally retarded. Conversely, a full 70 per cent of
respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with executing these offenders.
While the findings on the first three groups of offenders reveal levels of support in
a manner consistent with Supreme Court rulings, the findings observed for the last
special offender group is indicative of serious inconsistencies with the currently cited
‘‘evolving standards of decency.’’ Although the Court held in Ford v. Wainwright
(1986) that the standards of decency in society had evolved to a point that did not
support the execution of mentally incompetent offenders, this study found surprisingly high levels of support (57 per cent) for their execution. That is, the respondents
supported capital punishment for those convicted murderers originally sentenced to
death who become mentally incompetent while awaiting execution. Thus, the
study’s indicator of the ‘‘evolving standards of decency’’ with regard to mentally
incompetent capital offenders seems to be in contrast with the opinion cited in Ford.
In summary, these data indicate that death penalty support varied depending
upon offender type in a manner consistent with the existing case law of the Supreme
Court and its interpretation of the ‘‘evolving standards of decency’’ regarding
the application of capital punishment to juveniles and the mentally retarded. These
data, however, indicate that public opinion is in conflict with Supreme Court case
law regarding the execution of the mentally incompetent. In the analyses that follow,
the statistical associations between levels of death penalty support and a variety of
respondent characteristics are examined in an effort to discover whether or not there
was any evidence of societal consensus across demographic sub-populations in the
study (see Tables 2 and 3). Recall that evidence of statistically significant associations is indicative that the conditional distribution of death penalty support across
Table 2. Bi-serial correlations between death penalty support and respondent characteristics
Death penalty support
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