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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Kentucky Supreme Court rules death penalty IQ law is unconstitutional

I.Q. Test
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state's practice for determining if someone is intellectually disabled and not eligible to receive the death penalty is “unconstitutional” and has established new guidelines.

The order changing Kentucky’s rules on capital punishment came in the case of Robert Keith Woodall, who was sentenced to death for raping and killing a 16-year-old girl in Greenville two decades ago.

The high court ordered a lower court to hold a hearing to determine if Woodall is intellectually disabled, preventing him from being executed. 

It is unconstitutional to sentence a mentally disabled person to death – which has been defined in Kentucky as someone with an IQ below 70.

However, Kentucky's high court ruled a person cannot be found intellectually disabled simply because they have an IQ of 71 or above. Instead, the justices determined defendants must undergo a “totality of the circumstances test,” including whether they have the ability to learn basic skills and adjust their behavior to circumstances, among other guidelines.

Those standards are in line with guidelines established by the U.S. Supreme Court that take other factors into account, according to the ruling. The federal court, for example, bars states from using a single, strict IQ standard to determine a prisoner's death penalty status. 

In its ruling, the Kentucky high court found the state's current law to be “an outdated test for ascertaining intellectual disability."

Kentucky was one of only a few states still using the fixed score cutoff to determine mental disability. 

Justice Sam Wright disagreed with the other high court judges that Kentucky’s current law is unconstitutional, arguing that judges already must hold a hearing to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that a person is eligible for the death penalty.

Woodall pleaded guilty to kidnapping Sarah Hansen on Jan. 25, 1997, from a convenience store in western Kentucky, according to a story by the Associated Press. Woodall acknowledged that he raped the girl and slit her throat twice before throwing her in a lake. DNA evidence, fingerprints and footprints led to Woodall.

A jury sentenced Woodall to death, but a psychiatrist has since testified he was “intellectually disabled,” according to the ruling. The case has been sent back to Caldwell Circuit Court.

Source: WDRB News, Jason Riley, June 14, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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