In a decision that may prove to be a lightning rod in the debate over Pennsylvania's use of the death penalty, the state Supreme Court has ruled that any criminal defendant with mental impairments, short of being legally defined as "mentally retarded," can be executed for capital offenses.
A dissenting justice accused the majority of being "draconian" and warned the ruling might lead to putting mentally retarded people to death.
The justices in the 5-2 decision in Commonwealth v. Vandivner ruled that those seeking waiver of the death penalty must show records noting a defendant's mental illness began before his or her 18th birthday -- a decision Justice Max Baer labeled as problematic for certain defendants.
"To say this is troubling is an understatement," Baer wrote in his concurring and dissenting opinion. "Many defendants, such as appellant, were not afforded the specialized expert attention, IQ tests, or adaptive assessments memorialized in school records, required by the majority to corroborate their claim of mental retardation."
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille said that the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia allowed states to define "mental retardation" and that his ruling merely followed the definition set forth by the state Supreme Court in 2005 in Commonwealth v. Miller.
The Miller ruling, he wrote, requires a defendant to prove three things -- that his or her IQ is roughly at or below 70, that he or she has limited adaptive behavior skills and that he or she has had such problems since before his or her 18th birthday.
In James W. Vandivners case, the debate centered on whether Vandivner was diagnosed as mentally retarded before his 18th birthday.
Castille wrote he was not.
He later continued: "As there is currently no prohibition on imposing the death penalty on a defendant who is mentally deficient but not mentally retarded, this claim must fail."
Much more on this topic is in StandDown's mental illness category index.