Capital Offenders’ Intellectual Disability and “Insanity”

Excluding and Delaying the Death Penalty

Authored by: Peggy M. Tobolowsky

Routledge Handbook on Capital Punishment

Print publication date:  December  2017
Online publication date:  December  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138651579
eBook ISBN: 9781315624723
Adobe ISBN:


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It is estimated that over 4% of the American adult population has a serious mental illness and that 1–3% of the general population is intellectually disabled (American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2013; National Institute of Mental Health, 2016; Tobolowsky, 2014). Traditionally, the estimates of seriously mentally ill and intellectually disabled death-sentenced offenders have exceeded those of the general population (Hensl, 2004; Tobolowsky, 2014; White, 1993). In Ford v. Wainwright (1986), the United States Supreme Court (the Court) ruled that the carrying out of a death sentence on a capital offender who is “insane” is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. In Atkins v. Virginia (2002), the Court concluded that the imposition of a death sentence on an intellectually disabled offender is also unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. This chapter reviews the Court’s rulings that established the categorical exclusion from the death penalty for intellectually disabled offenders and the constitutional basis to delay the carrying out of a death sentence on “insane” offenders, as well as their implementation by this country’s capital punishment jurisdictions.

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