Magazine article The Christian Century , Vol. 119, No. 14
Rules that certain states follow in applying the death penalty were impacted by separate decisions of the Supreme Court in June. In one, the justices said that executing mentally retarded prisoners convicted of murder is excessive punishment. In the second, they declared it unconstitutional for judges, rather than jurors, to decide the factors that send a person to death row.
Most analysts did not see the rulings as necessarily leading toward abolition of capital punishment. Those two decisions and other developments concerning the death penalty, said a Washington Post analysis on June 25, "could just as easily fit into an age-old American trend of embracing the death penalty while struggling to cleanse it of moral and intellectual conundrums."
On June 19 the court ruled that executing mentally retarded inmates is cruel and "excessive" punishment. "We are not persuaded that the execution of mentally retarded criminals will measurably advance the deterrent or the retributive purpose of the death penalty," said Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the 6-3 decision. It is the first time the high court has ruled on such executions since 1989, when in a 5-4 opinion Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that no "national consensus" existed on the issue.
At the time, only two states and the federal government banned such executions. Now, 18 of the nearly 40 death penalty states ban the practice. Earlier this year the state of Virginia, the defendant in the case, moved toward a ban, but delayed action pending the high court's decision. Stevens remarked on the actions by state legislatures since the high court's 1989 decision, as well as the fact that some states that authorize such executions rarely carry them out. "The practice, therefore, has become truly unusual, and it is fair to say that a national consensus has developed against it," he wrote. …