Clinton Smith, a man sentenced to die in 1998 for the death of his daughter, was ordered off death row last week by state Supreme Court judge John Jolly, Jr. Mr. Smith cannot read or write and has an IQ of less than 70. He was found to be mentally retarded and, therefore, ineligible for the death penalty, according to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. His sentence was changed to life in prison.
The question remains, however, as to why Mr. Smith’s death sentence was not lessened six years ago after the Court ruled that executing the mentally retarded was cruel and unusual. And how many other mentally retarded inmates await execution despite a Supreme Court ruling intended to protect them? Unfortunately, justice for these inmates may be tied up in subjective definitions of “mental retardation”. Each state has its own definition, many relying on vague qualifiers such as “subaverage general intellectual functioning” and “deficits in adaptive behavior”. Many also rely on IQ scores, with one point meaning the difference between life and death.